Writing Sex into the Classics

This was originally written a couple years ago after reading two erotic updates of English literature classics, which seemed an inevitable outgrowth of the monster mash-ups that became something of a fad after the surprise success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I was reminded of its existence when I ran across a Northanger Abbey with sex writing mash-up recently. I haven’t gone back to see if my little theory about Austen and sex writing works at all, but I do applaud the mash-up writer for taking on one of my favorite Austen heroes. He was just the kind of gentle and mansplainy that I would expect.

A quick disclaimer: this isn’t really a “review”. That’s generally true when I’m writing “reviews”, but I felt squeamish reading through it for spelling errors and the like. This is a complete and total overreaction and overthink of some very silly stuff, and I just want to be clear that I’m aware of that. If you really give a shit about whether you’ll like a smut version of “Daisy Miller” by Henry James, or the continuing erotic adventures of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, I will repeat this quote attributed to so many people as to be a mysterious aphorism: people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like. I mean, seriously. 

I get why contemporary writers do pulp retellings of 19th Century literature. So much of what gives the original stories juice is the unspoken or the alluded, all that subterranean emotion thrumming through the stories like blood. The thing I remember most from Wuthering Heights, for example, is Cathy running out into the moors, tearing all her clothes off, and becoming a werewolf. And before you get on me, yes, of course I know this didn’t happen. But the image is what my mind makes of all the subtext, all this howling and brutality and half-creatures. While Wuthering Heights is an absolute hatecast, there’s a lot of ambiguity there, a closed mouth about certain things which isn’t so much coy as withholding. I can see the instinct to nail it down, to make it be one thing and not all the others. So of course it’s dumb and painful that Stephenie Meyer, in Eclipse, remakes this story of blood and revenge into a doddering middle class non-problem, but she absolutely gets the werewolf right. She makes it one thing and not the others.

Conversely, let us consider Austen, who probably has the largest body of retellings of her works. (Interestingly, these mash-ups tend to be either horror or romance; maybe it’s the embodied angle of both genres? Or, wait, there are some mysteries, which I tend not to read, so this theory is more about my predilections than anything. Carry on.) Unlike the Brontës, Austen is very rarely, and only under the most dire of circumstances, a Romantic — heed my capital letter, friends — even while her stories are intensely domestic. It has been observed that no two men speak to one another without a woman present in all of her novels, as she has the concision of the documentarian. She has never seen two men speak without a woman (herself) present, and she’s hard-headed enough to stick to the things she’s seen, rather than the things she can imagine.

She’s got a mercantile bent, so much so that one almost despairs ever meeting the principles of Sense and Sensibility when one picks it up, given the reems of description of everyone’s financial state. Observe:

By a former marriage, Mr. Henry Dashwood had one son; by his present lady, three daughters. The son, a steady, respectable young man, was amply provided for by the fortune of his mother, which had been large, and half of which devolved on him on his coming of age. By his own marriage, likewise, which happened soon afterwards, he added to his wealth. To him therefore the succession to the Norland estate was not so really important as to his sisters; for their fortune, independent of what might arise to them from their father’s inheriting that property, could be but small. Their mother had nothing, and their father only seven thousand pounds in his own disposal; for the remaining moiety of his first wife’s fortune was also secured to her child, and he had only a life interest in it.”

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

Zzzzzzz. 

Look, I love Austen like the catty, introverted cousin I hang on the wall with while at family functions, drinking — which is to say: a lot — but this is some bloodless stuff. Much as the mistaken asshole plot from Pride and Prejudice has become a mainstay of romance novels, Austen herself would not particularly care for the high emotions of such a thing, especially if the principles failed to take into account or straight up flaunted social/economic/racial divides. Which happens often in romance novels because the driving considerations of a match are emotional; love trumps all incompatibilities. Education heals all, to Austen, or possibly one’s good nature, or manners, or all three, but then only provisionally, and only for the narrowest of slices of society. Maybe. Money is most definitely very large factor. 

So I can see why people want to sex her up. Austen doesn’t give us much to go on, in terms of physicality: Elizabeth has “fine eyes” and Darcy, honestly I don’t know if he is short or tall or blond or what. Elizabeth even pokes at the Romantic sensibility right before she gets her own moral/economic slapdown at Pemberley, so awed by her would-be lover’s stuff and things she doesn’t “know herself”:

“My dear, dear aunt,” she rapturously cried, “what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of any thing. We will know where we have gone — we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers.” [all sic, because Austen can’t spell, bless her heart]

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

What are men, indeed, Elizabeth? The romance novel heroine might protest in much the same way: no, of course I do not love Slade, who is either wealthy or secretly wealthy. But her revelation that she loves him would never come at observing Slade’s tangible wealth; that would be too bald, strangely. Indeed the opposite is more often true: the romantic heroine’s lack of care for his wealth is the test that paradoxically provides her worthiness. She is no golddigger. She does not consider such hard, true, palpable things as money in her calculations of her happiness, except insofar as her poverty is a virtue. There are roughly one million romance novels that pair the noble poor woman with a dickish billionaire, running a redemption arc for the wealthy while both volorizing poverty and slyly denigrating the poor. The worthy poor get a hand out; the rest of you lot are probably getting what you deserve.

In some ways, adding sex to Austen balances the scale. All scandals, my dad once told me, have to do with either sex or money. Austen’s scandals tend to be about money. Though sex occasionally factors, money is always the prime mover, that thing that bends passions and taints the tentative beginnings. Austen is no Victorian: This isn’t because she’s squeamish or a prude. The bone fide sex scandals in her novels do not result in redemptive death for the woman; neither Lydia Bennet nor the Bertram sister from Mansfield Park get consumption and die as punishment. The consequences of their actions flow naturally, and are not there as moral instruction (which is actually astonishing, considering.) But latter day stories featuring Elizabeth and Darcy often find them, post nuptials, engaging in all the hard passions denied the satirist, because Austen’s aim is not moralizing but satirizing.

The latter day erotic retelling aligns Austen to more post-War middle class American sensibilities: you can talk about money, but only as a metric for plucky self-determination, or for virtue-signaling purposes. Virtue is rewarded, often materially, in the narrative, which is something that often doesn’t happen in Austen. Elinor Dashwood and her beau are quite impoverished, in the end, as are Fanny and Edmund. And sex in a certain species of boilerplate romance novel — the kind you find on the spinning rack — is weirdly morally pure. I once spend a wedding shower in the company of born again Christian in-laws, who regaled me with their sexual exploits in terms far too explicit for this humble humanist. Sex in the confines is exalted, apparently. It makes sense, theologically: emotions are more important that fact, faith more important than works, at least in ground game American evangelical Christianity, which I think has tangible impact on the morality of your average romance novel. Fuck all you want; you’re married.

This sainted carnality is well more important in the contemporary erotic retelling than Austen’s uneasy broodings about education and morality, the subtle differences between good breeding and good manners, with all the attendant, antique and oft unpleasant implications of such concepts. I like Austen because I do not agree with her in many things (insofar as anyone can “agree” with a society 200 years distant) but I adore how serious, subtle, and nuanced her considerations are. Austen’s creatures do something more interesting than fucking, but I get how people want to see the fucking as an outgrowth of the more interesting, how they want to see it flat and straight. How fucking simplifies all the problems brought up by Austen, makes them cleanly dirty.

Which brings me rather long-windedly to these two fictions: Daisy Miller: The Wild and Wanton Edition by Gabrielle Vigot and Henry Miller (snort), and The Wilde Passions of Dorian Gray by Mitzi Szerto. Both of the original works are fictions with thick erotic subtexts, something near satire, almost didactic, definitely a hard examination of the author’s social milieu. It might be unfair to compare these two latter day appendage fictions: wild & wanton Daisy Miller is a mash-up, stitching sex writing into James’s short story, while Wilde Passions is a continuation, imagining the later day travails of the immortal Dorian Gray. I think it works in the way that Pride & Prejudice & Zombies sits uneasily yet surely with its inferior prequel: Pride & Prejudice & Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls. These are all fictions tied to the trajectories of larger gravities, unable to be considered as separate works by even the most New Critical of folk. 

So. Wild & wanton Daisy Miller is probably easier to consider, what with its brevity and large chunks of the original text. I can see why it’s attractive just to stitch fuck sequences into 19th century lit — like porn, you don’t have to mess around with actual plot, etc — but such an enterprise becomes stylistically dodgy when dealing with an author as distinctive as Henry James. I have never read the original Daisy Miller, and I could tell, down to the sentence, where the graft occurred. But the early sex sequences were honestly adorable, with Daisy and Winterbourne enacting fantasy and reverie at the edges of James’s work. This dreamy, half-imagined fuckery seemed right in line with James’s aesthetic, with a brooding, half-real cast to it. It was only as the story unspooled that things got dumb. I guess what bothers me about the new Daisy Miller is that Winterbourne wins in the end, and that dude should fucking get it. Not that he gets it in James’s version, exactly, but he sure doesn’t get the girl. Wait, let’s back up.

Definite spoilers ahead. 

In James’s version of Daisy Miller, a boring cipherous New Englander named Winterbourne meets the lush and lusty daughter of American industrialists in Geneva. They have a boring and cipherous semi-courtship, until they decamp singly to Italy. She falls in with Italians (gasp!), with whom she is either having sex, or having the socially disastrous appearance of sex. (Same/same.) Winterbourne is a dick and a bro about the whole thing; Daisy delivers some speeches about freedom (O, America); then she dies because sluts always die of the fever. The story reads as this weird superimposition of New York Belle Epoque morality, where the girl gets it because she’s a slut and/or the wrong class (same/same), and a criticism of that, because the industrialist son who oversees this tragedy is a drag and a buzzkill. (Should we be outside? Should you even be talking to me? Omg, this is all soooo informal; that’s hot but I’m scared.) You want to fling yourself at Italian men at the end, because godamn is society cold and cruel. 

In the lush & lusty version, Daisy delivers her speeches, and instead of Winterbourne magically not be the worst (which he’s pretty much been in all the Henry James parts of the story) he discovers his love for her and rescues her from fucking Italians. (I mean “fucking” to mean “having sex with”, not as an intensifier, to be clear.) They make out and she’s cured of the Roman Fever, the end. Oh, also, her mom has a lot of buttsecks with the butler. I don’t really have a problem with that either, other than the usual squeamishness about, like, fucking the staff. But, you know, this is fine work if you can get it.

Winterbourne and Daisy getting together is the kind of end that makes me feel icky in my tummy. Sure, in the original, Winterbourne is an officious dick and Daisy a sheltered fool, but their ugly ends (while completely incommensurate) taught me something about rigid, boring, horrid class systems based on the finest of gradations. While I’m fine with Daisy surviving the usual Romantic illness that overtakes all fallen women since Victoria took the throne (at least), I am mos def not okay with Winterbourne being treated like some kind of romantic hero. Fuuuuck that guy; he is the embodiment of mediocre conventionality. Team Daisy. 

This seems an altogether different kind of American social message to have Winterbourne win out against his girl fucking Italians. Instead of some quaint 19th century examination of the grasping newly middle class tripping over its inborn lusts in front of the more second generation moneyed asshole, we have the second generation moneyed asshole being redeemed by the quaint notion of love erasing all impediments, even the bone-deep character ones. Daisy opens her legs and her heart, and Winterbourne is tugged dickward towards his inevitable romantic emanation. (I love you. Daisy, and your fucking of Italians in the square is simply performance to my voyeurism. What happiness, etc.) It’s a petty, priapic kind of love, one where romantic love brutally wins over literally everything else.

Everyone forgets that Romeo and Juliet were the exact same damn thing, and that their thwarted romance had nothing to do with class or race or anything. It is the narcissism of small differences: that the more similar two people are, the more they are likely to focus on the points of divergence, sometimes to animosity. (Which explains things like, say, the conflict in Northern Ireland, which to outsiders looks like an pointless ginger fight.) R & J would have cemented a dynasty had they had text messaging, and I gotta say, that’s not a play I want to see. It would be gross to watch two rich, white assholes get together, and it’s a damn good thing they died. So too, in the updated Daisy Miller. Daisy survives Winterbourne’s bourgie morality so they can canoodle, pretty much destroying all actual criticism of James’s social milieu. I really haven’t got a lot of time for this, but then I also admit I’m a vicious crank. Someone has got to die to prove the situation serious. All the unintended consequences to the shifts in Daisy make it kind of a bummer.

I also admit I’ve entirely overthought just about everything. Lighten up! It’s just a bit of fun! And look, I know. And I did have some fun, mostly because of the dizzying whiplash of stewing in James’s page-long sentences, and then being treated to rapid fire anal sex scenes. There’s something charming about how silly the whole prospect is, which is why I undertook this at all. Brontës and Austen make sense to me to graft in some love and zombies, but James? Is there, like, wild & wanton versions of Melville? Ethan Frome? They’re both stories with thick erotic subtexts, and even some unrequited love! (If only that big white Dick would put out, sigh.) It takes stones to take on James with a project this goofy, and I do earnestly applaud the effort. You’d never get me to set my prose style against James’; no fucking way.

And so, to move on after far too much ado, a quick google unearthed for me the latter day adventures of Dorian Gray. Unlike Miss Daisy, Wilde Passions of Dorian Gray is not a mash-up, but a continuation. Szereto rewrites the very end of Dorian Gray (the only novel Wilde ever wrote), rescuing Dorian from death by his own hand, and recounting the plot of Wilde’s novel though flashback and reference. Dorian bottoms through the next century or so, moving from various literary and/or exotic locales: Paris in the beginning, where he runs with Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds (though why they are never named confuses me); on to Marrakesh, where he enacts an ooky Orientalism; then to South America, where he tempts the faithful, and finally ending in New Orleans in an unconvincing redemption of sorts. With vampires.

While the wild & wanton “Daisy Miller” feels like a goof or a lark — hey, let’s stitch some fuckery into Henry James! That’s hi-larious! — I get the distinct impression that Wilde Passions is rather serious. Wilde Passions is not simple stroke material, but an earnest grappling with the ambiguous messages of Dorian Gray. This is odd, really, because Wilde, as you may be aware, was one of the funniest dudes ever, and the shift in tone is notable. I scanned a little of the original Dorian Gray, and shit, yo, is that man droll. At least Wilde Passions doesn’t have the source material cheek to jowl with the continuation, because that would be ruinous. As it stands, the different tone is not distracting, and trying to write like Oscar Wilde, one of the great comic writers, is probably doomed anyway.

So, I guess what I want to talk about is the erotic, and sex writing more generally. Sex writing is one of those things that is more variegated that it would appear from the snickering. It’s probably harder to pull off than a fight scene, which I would say is damned difficult to do well, because even just the writer’s choices for body terminology can turn a reader off. I know I have the words I cannot take seriously in a sexual context, which is not the same for “arm” or “leg” or “knife”. The verb “to lave” doesn’t get much play beyond sex writing, and feels both clinical and euphemistic to me. I’d much prefer cunts and cocks to honey pots and manroots, but I know many readers of sex writing, almost ironically, find these terms far too aggressive or smutty or something. 

It seems to me we’ve ceded sex writing to romance novels, and I don’t mean this to be an indictment of romance novels, but an indictment of literary fiction. Most of the best sex writing I’ve read has been in a romance novel, because that’s where sex writing occurs most often. But romance novels generally present a very, very narrow slice of the stunning variety of human sexuality. I’m not just talking about kinks or whatnot, I’m talking about how it’s generally middle class white women knocking boots with middle class white men, all between the ages of 25-35. The sex is going to be good, mind-blowing even, and no one has tired, married sex to get it over with. I’m not saying romance novels should start depicting that, necessary, though some older, less white folk would be greatly appreciated. I get that they’re wish fulfillment narratives. But it’s notable to me, for example, how many people shit the bed over the tampon scene in Fifty Shades of Grey, wherein dude removes her tampon before banging her, when, right now, literally thousands of people are having sex on the rag. Tens of thousands. It’s such a mundane, everyday detail to freak out over. Romance novel sex is often weirdly prissy.

But it’s dreadfully hard to find sex in literary fiction, and when you do, it’s often just painfully bad. The British literary magazine Literary Review does a Bad Sex in Fiction prize every year, and the esteemed and prized writers who make the list make one wince. From Ben Okri, a Booker prize winner, and the Bad Sex in Fiction winner for 2014:

“Adrift on warm currents, no longer of this world, she became aware of him gliding into her. He loved her with gentleness and strength, stroking her neck, praising her face with his hands, till she was broken up and began a low rhythmic wail … The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.”

 I mean, really. This is what sex would be like on Monty Python, the bombs bursting on air and all that. I can think of some really cringy sex scenes from literary novels, with this just terrible mix of platitudes and overwrought metaphors. And this is of course when there is any sex writing at all, this vital component of many relationships simply elided. 

The sex — and there is a lot of it — in Wilde Passions cuts a weird middle distance. It’s not explicit enough to be stroke material — it’s not erotica — but then it’s too omnipresent to be truly literary. Dorian enacts just a host of transgressions in his quest for hedonistic sensuality and fading youthful beauty, like he does in Wilde’s novel. He ruins a Marrakeshi prostitute boy with shame and drink; he seduces a monk, which leads to the monk’s suicide. He brutalizes and murders women in New Orleans. But, here’s the thing: I just kinda didn’t get why.

Wilde somewhat famously added a preface to Dorian Gray after Victorian critics got all up in arms about its “sham morality”. You’re just writing smut with the lamest of censures tacked on the end, they said, to which Wilde replied: all art is quite useless. Morality or immorality has no place in the process of creating beauty. Art is a not a tool — it should not have a use — or it is not art. I can’t say I agree, but then I also understand where he’s coming from, and why he’s putting it so starkly. He goes to explore a life decoupled from consequence, driven by an amoral worldview, and then a bunch of howling censors accuse him of corrupting babies. Fuck you, I’m not making tools for your morality. Make them your damn self. 

Continuing on Gray’s amoral quest, after removing what you could even consider a moral, is an interesting experiment, honestly, but I have some reservations about how successful this is. His transgressions are all sexual in nature, and I begin to weary of the fuckery. Why can we not change up his violations of the social contract with, say, a Ponzi scheme or selling cancer cures made of chicken bones? I guess what I’m saying is it seems a failure of imagination to cast all his amorality in terms of the bedroom. He even killed a dude directly in Wilde’s tale. Sure, you could argue that it’s the culture around Dorian which casts his homosexual sex acts as villainous, but, as a first person narrative, that doesn’t really work. He’s pretty gleeful about the ways he ruins people through buggery, and, ultimately, it reads a little like, omg, the homosexual agenda! I don’t think that’s the intent, not at all, but it can be read out of the text pretty easily. 

But, my disquiet aside, Szereto is clearly grappling with something here, something real. And let’s put my disquiet back into it: Wilde Passions invoked for me the same brutal, chilly eroticism of mid-century fiction by women — stuff like The Story of O and Ice by Anna Kavan — and that shit frays me. She takes this odd, amoral remnant from the most squeamish of times, Victoriana, and then runs him like a VHS tape on fast forward. Wilde Passions ends somewhere in Anne Rice’s vampire eroticism, all kudzu and rot, which would be relevant 20 years ago but feels weirdly antique now. All of it feels antique: the Fitzgeralds, the Orientalism, the Thomas Mann inflected monastery, New Orleans before Katrina. Hell, maybe this takes place after Katrina, but that wouldn’t rightly be the point.

On some level, Wilde Passions is a catalog of the literary erotic, and the ways it doesn’t work are indictments of the form. The erotic in literature is built partially on shame, and shame is a sad, lonely, and conservative beast, more worried about body parts than injustice, more worried about degradation than violation. So Dorian’s burgeoning, transformative love for a girl he both brutalized and terrorized is part and parcel of the romantic narrative: love is redemptive, and requires no agency in its actors. You will be an ideal person whether you like it or not. You are simply a player in someone else’s story. Once again, love brutally wins over literally everything else, only this time, you’re not supposed to see that as a good thing. God help us all.

It’s intensely clever the way Szereto removes the Victorian “moral”, weak though it is, and then runs Gray’s amoral sensation seeking through changing literary erotic landscapes. She then ends with a modern “moral”, which looks just a weak as the Victorian. You rarely notice how blinkered the idea that romantic love is a moral agent, but boy can you see it here. Wilde Passions was a very pleasant surprise for me, an essay on sex writing and morality which is deeply considered. Who knew?

Built Ford Tough: Brave New World

I have this little theory — a “little theory” being one of those half-assed ideas one has that won’t stand up to scrutiny — that a person can have either a Macbeth English major or a Hamlet English major. I myself had theMacbeth kind, having read the Scottish play three times for various classes during undergrad, and never once Hamlet. (In fact, I have never read Hamlet, though I’ve seen it maybe a dozen times.) That Macbeth was the thing when I was in school says something about the pulse of that moment in time. Maybe it’s too histrionic to see something in my profs choosing the Macbeths and their overreaching pas de deux over Hamlet’s leaderly meltdown during the Clinton era, but then again, maybe not.This little theory falls apart once I factor in the twice-read Tempest or King Lear— it’s silly to decant ones formative Shakespeare into two plays, and then roshambo — but like all little theories, I do cleave to it inordinately.

To stretch this little theory a bit, I see this kind of small theoretical split in a bunch of sub-genres: The Yearling or Old Yeller, in the dead animal department; Monty Python or Hitchhiker’s Guide, in ye 70s British humor department; and for the purposes of this essay, 1984 or Brave New World in your classic dystopia department. People tend to have read one or the other, and if both are read, the one you encountered earliest is the one you prefer. I had a 1984 childhood, finishing that book on a bus back from a school trip to Quebec, and feeling that bullet right in my brain. [spoiler alert] It’s entirely possible that I would feel the same way about Brave New World if I’d read it at the time — the adolescent brain being what it is — but I didn’t. Instead, Huxley’s classic had to contend with dreary old me, a me that couldn’t ever get a leg over. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy many facets of Brave New World, but just that much of my enjoyment was at arm’s length — ironic, critical, or historical — and not in the moment of narrative. It was worth reading to be read, and not in the reading of it. Ah, my lost youth.

I was honestly surprised at how science fictional the opening was. There’s a whole lot of technobabble and der blinken lights, mouthpiece characters yammering on about how the axlotl tanks work and embryonic division and sleep hypnosis and the like. I feel like — and this could be certainly another “little theory”, but bear with me — contemporary literary fiction tends to avoid hard science trappings, lest one get genre cooties all over one’s magnum opus (cf. The Road, Zone One, et al.) Huxley’s got no squeamishness about that, and his future has the hard patina of 30s futurism, all aeronautics and chemistry. I was recently regaling a friend about Gibson’s “Gernsback Continuum”, and its elucidation of the semiotic phantom of  “American streamline Moderne” that gets the story’s narrator so twitterpated. Which, whoa.

The future of the past is a detritus we all live with — in our nostalgia and anxiety dreams — and it’s odd to see such an early one, such an embryonic one: 1932, before the Great War that informed 1984, before any of the other condensed catastrophes of the world we inhabit now. I found the way Huxley is taking aim at American consumerism — the social engineers are called “Fords”, and there are a variety of almost funny jokes about this — and Soviet authoritarianism — Lenina is our almost heroine — just touching. I can’t imagine a contemporary writer cutting these two things together; they’ve been too solidly set as a dialectic in the interregnum. Plus, none of these things mean the same anymore anyway. I mean, the first Stalinist purges had just happened a few years before Brave New World, but these early purges didn’t involve arrest and death like they would later, starting with the Great Purge of 1936. They were ideological litmus tests, sure, but Stalin had not yet begun to dream of the gulag and all the other nightmares that have since been associated with (at least) Soviet communist. And Ford had not yet begun collaborating with the fucking Nazis, because the Brownshirts were still just vigilante skinheads. Anyway.

The part that made me lose my shit was when our cheerful fordians spend a weekend in the “human reservation” somewhere in the American southwest, probably Arizona, which is peopled with folk who look a lot like the Pueblo people of the American Southwest. Americans certainly have a kinky view of the native peoples of North America: in historical contexts, there’s this spiritual largess afforded conquered people, and in modern ones, an irritation that aboriginal Americans continue to exist. Why do you still keep making claims to shit we legit conquered you for, noble savage? It’s not dissimilar to a British view of colonial artifacts: certainly the Greeks cannot be trusted to caretake the Elgin Parthenon Marbles. Huxley’s description of the reservation hews to this, with an irritation towards pagan “superstition” and general backwardsness, married to a strange in-the-reverse satire of sterile “progress”.

The story of John the Savage — the Englishman born in the reservation — ends up being this completely bananas expression of an inherent Englishness. Though born into the community, he somehow has problems with the language and never quite fits in. (Though, admittedly, some of this is his mom being the town drunk and whore, if you’ll excuse the expression.) I’ve known a lot of children of immigrants, and they know English as well as I; it’s their first language too. He’s given the collected works of Shakespeare at some point, and, like Frankenstein’s monster lurking at the edges of English society, somehow manages to divine the history of Christianity, all the trappings of traditional gender roles, and Romantic love. Which he then hews to when confronted by fordian society, like British culture is something that can be activated by a book, regardless of where you were raised. At least given the right blood quantum, to filch nomenclature from the American reservation.

It’s a trip watching John freak out when the woman he’s decided to courtly love propositions him sexually: omg, good girls don’t even do that!! Casual sex is super bad for you!! I get the impression I’m supposed to agree, and put in context of the fordian society which constantly describes women as “pneumatic” I kinda do, but I really don’t. It’s a false binary: harsh traditionalism or completely freewheeling sluttery. I’m not even going to go into all the feminist virgin/whore stuff, and you are welcome to fill it in yourself. Suffice it to say when John meets his inevitable end [uh, spoiler, except not really, because we can all see where this is going] in a welter of OH DO YOU SEE, I couldn’t do much more than laugh cynically. I was happy just to be done with all the fucking speachifying that typifies the end, good Lord.

I’m just going to note here, briefly, that the racial categories in the fordian society are completely fucked. While there are moments when I felt this was meant satirically, there are at least as many, if not more, where I felt it was not. Emphatically.

So. Strange New World is a trip, and I recommend a pass at it if you’re into the history of science fiction or the social satire, or where those two things connect, but I’ve gotta say it’s not aging too well. While I appreciate the ways Huxley anticipated the soporific effects of media on labor — and, weirdly, the horror of the paparazzi — his satire is bound by the rules of the day, as all satire is. That’s the sad thing about satire, which bites best when it’s specific, situated, in the moment, but then the moment moves on and it’s left as a relic, a joke that has to be explained to get the punchline. Same goes for horror and comedy, which says something about all of them.

Sharcano!!!1!

There’s this dismissive, tautological quote that goes something like, “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” I can’t find a reputable source for this line — it’s been attributed to Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, or a tumblr image of some cats — but it has the kind of epigrammatic pithiness that makes for great ad copy. I think you can fairly easily tell by the title whether you are in the audience of this book. Sharcano = shark + volcano!!!1! You know if this math is for you.

I guess I expected Sharcano to be a nod to pulp horror like anything by Guy N Smith, a journeyman writer who churned out well over a hundred novels, and, given that he isn’t dead yet, likely is churning them out still. (His wiki page notes that he is an “active pro-smoking campaigner”, which I find inordinately charming. I even smoke, and I know that shit ain’t good for anyone, mostly because I smoke.) I was expecting shoddy continuity, uproarious misogyny, and lurid bloodbath, the kind of thing banged out in two non-consecutive weekends with a lot of uppers in the mix.

But no, Sharcano is more a nod to big budget action disaster films, movies like Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow. This is not a criticism; more an observation. There’s an estranged couple — one of whom is a massive television personality slash dillhole — so you’ve got your remarriage plot; a couple of moppets of various ethnicity; a priest at the focus of a shady Vatican conspiracy; some bubbas; sasquatch &c. There’s a lot of destruction that would work well better on the screen with Michael Bay-ish craptacular jump cuts, but then there’s a wry comedy aspect that would never be evident in a Michael Bay film.

What Sharcano reminds me most of is The Core, which is a silly disaster film complete with unobtainium and Stanley Tucci. The scene where Tucci is in a train car thing, about to die, bloviating into a tape recorder in his showboat way, and then starts laughing at the ridiculousness of such an act is one of my legit favorites. Almost as good as Samuel L in Deep Blue Sea starting into a monologue about how we’re not going to fight anymore! right before the supershark fucking drops the knowledge. Drop the knowledge, sharks made out of lava. We’ll catch up.

Here’s the thing: I’m not sure this book needs to be 400+ pages, and I’m seriously unsure that it should be the first in a trilogy. Sharcano is well better than it should be, a quality which gives with one hand and takes with another. Pulp’s got a certain energy to it, a rough, unedited pulse. Sharcano has a more arms-reach approach to the material, a half-ironic tone that tries to split the difference between straight up satire and gleeful homage. That’s a hard line to walk, very hard, and that Sharcano manages it at all should be seen as a win. If you like this sort of thing, as the cats of tumblr tell me, then this is the sort of thing you’ll like.

 

I received my copy from Netgalley. Thanks, dudes.

Talking style with the St Paul Mayor

From the second in a series of fashion profiles from the Star Tribune of elected officials:

After the start of his second term in office, St Paul Mayor Chris Coleman has shown that a man can possess a serious sense of fashion and still be treated seriously. So what we’re going to do, in our interview, is not take him seriously at all.

Describe your style: “I’m a Midwestern politician and I was trained as a lawyer, so I’m going to go with hugely bland. A lot of my family worked in newspapers so we have a family tradition of a “wardrobe for print”. But I’ve got a bod for sin, just like Melanie Griffith.”

You feel best when you’re wearing …“Blue shirt, red tie. But sometimes I like blue shirt, blue tie just to change it up. But just between you and me, business casual totally stresses me out. How am I supposed to accessorize Dockers and a polo shirt?”

Where do you shop? “It’s absolutely killing me that Men’s Warehouse evicted the “I guarantee it” guy from the board. That place was my favorite, but now, I don’t even know. What will it be without George Zimmer? Burlington Coat Factory is also really nice.”

You never leave home without …“So, this is a little creepy, but I have this rabbit’s foot from when I was a kid. It was dyed green, but the color has faded, so it seems a little sickly. I’m reasonably sure it’s the reason for my political success though, so I had secret pockets made in all of my clothes. Its name is Melvin.”

What’s your No1 fashion rule? “No white after Labor Day. I’m working on legislation that will make this law in St Paul. Plus, socks with crocs are both morally and ethically wrong.”

Are there any fashion challenges that come with being a man in politics? “I’m legit sick of all the attention that my panty lines get. So I like old fashioned boxers, and they have a tendency to wad up a little. Really, it’s just a couple pair of them, for my “fat days.”  It’s not anyone’s business but mine and my boys’.”

How has your style changed since becoming mayor? “I wore more sweaters when I was on the city council, but I think I need a more national look as a mayor, you know? Like I’m the boss, but not like the boss boss. I’m worried I’m sacrificing approachability for professionalism, but the right tie can really soften the whole “executive branch” thing. It’s a balancing act, like eating peas without honey.”

Tell us about your hair. “It’s 100% my own hair. I would not want to pull a Traficant; that’s just awkward for everyone. My wife calls me a “silver fox,” but I still can’t tell if that’s an insult or not.”

Who are your style icons? “Oh my God, there are so many. I mean, obviously, JFK, because I rarely wear hats. Obama, Clinton, and both the Georges Bush wore suits a lot and were in government. I think my sweater period was a nod to Fred Rogers. I honestly shed tears when he died. Such a good man.”

I can’t help but notice that this interview is 100% grade A gold-plated bullshit. “Right you are, Star Tribune. Keep up the good work, you rapidly irrelevant nitwits. Maybe I’ll accessorize the end of this interview with my middle finger.”

(With apologies to Chris Coleman, who seems like a nice guy. For sure doesn’t keep the severed foot of a small animal in his clothes.)

Slasher Films: Lolita

Lolita is a premonition of the slasher film by way of the Gothic novel, the point of view monster breathing in the grass as the co-educational campers couple amongst the furniture of middle America. It begins with that slasher staple, the note from the shrink, a wheezy clueless sort who mistakes fact for innuendo. This whole book occurs after the blackbird whistles, just to make an obscure poetic reference. The beginning sections reminded me of my local love, the anecdotal satirist of my youth, Sinclair Lewis, with his intricate and bawling America, laid out in sitting rooms and social climbing, Humbert the outsider, Humbert the imaginary monster, Hubert the European of our fantasies, all dissolution and our fevered dreams cum nightmares. (Har har.) 

The beginning is outrageously funny, the way horror stories are, Humber’ts parentheses side-commenting about this and that, a dagger commentary sheathed in brackets. Wait, a moment for his parentheses. Woolf may have taught me to love the semicolon, although that affection was in full bloom before I hit her mastery, but Nabokov and his creature (his Creature) have taught me to love those brief, epigrammatic asides. I await DFW to teach me the beauty of the endnote. At some point though, the whole thing grabbed me by the throat and shook, the way a dog does with prey (a cat, a wild-eyed rabbit) and I found myself shaken into another novel completely – the road trip novel, the long, undulating America, the Gothic panic of the narrow space recreated in a thousand unnamed American burgs and their sticky hotels, the mountains (which ones?) rising purple and ground down in the distance, the Oedipal struggle completely drawn with fangs that bite Oedipus in his hoary ass. Lo Lee Ta. A series of consonants and vowels that refuse to coalesce into meaning. 

Humbert is aggressively contructed, a narrator so damaged that the character is so fictional, so unreal, that it shimmers with the hot road mirage of truth, just up the bend, just under the bed. Humbert is awful, gross, a fraud, on so many levels; his Lolita, his Dolly, a work of the most perverse art. Like a character in a Browning monologue, we cannot believe anything he says, about her, about himself, the rough Freudian gloss muddling on about bad hearts and the newspaper, about childhood and its damage. Grrr, my heart’s abhorrence. No. Unlike a Browning poem, we can’t simply reverse Humbert’s statements to see past to the facts. Messy, like a mind, like knees in the dew-wet grass. Like any good Gothic novel, the bracket of the doctor’s statement is unclosed, and we end with Humbert and his musings on immortality. (Spoilers, I say, but that is ironic, at best.)

When I was 12, I had this friend. I still have her, as they say. We were not close at that time, just near in the surname alphabet, sitting close to one another, a desk away, two desks away. We liked each other; we were friends of the giggling sort. One day, she opened her purse, a denim number that looked like my own, and showed me the contents. Her eyes slanted away from mine. Look. Inside was a knife, in with the lipstick and tissue. Why do you have a knife? I asked, round-eyed, not understanding. My step-father…and here is an ellipses of details that are neither your business or mine, in the end. We slant our eyes away. I urged her naively to seek out an authority and tell, as children say. She did. It did not go well. 

You can write it in yourself, and I will not disgorge the hard details of this revelation or its rending conclusion. Her story is so commonplace as to be cliché, which makes it all the worse. That is not what this book is about. This book does not mistake fact for innuendo. It is the story of the madness of storytelling; the madness of the way we construct ourselves and others; a madness that won’t adhere to a lineal, Freudian causality. My friend’s step-father, the real monster, was a plump, useless, banal man with a beard and fat hands, may he roast in hell forever. Humbert is not this. He is fire and words, a long prissy, fated monologue that turns fiction on itself, a long slow gin of puns – there I made one, do you see? – an unclosed bracket on the American dream. Schwink schwink schink.

Main Street: 100 Year Old Satire Still Makes Me Die

Wow. Main Streetkind of kicked the tar out of me, something that I did not expect even halfway through my read. I’ve been sputtering and wailing around the house since I finished a couple of days ago, trying to get my thoughts in order. I should have seen this coming for a thousand reasons, but probably the biggest reason is that this is a satire about my own people, and it’s gotten me where I live. It’s also gotten me, which is maybe the worst thing about it. Good satire doesn’t play nice. It eats babies and butchers the sacred cows, and this is some of the best satire I’ve ever had the discomfort to read. 

The narrative starts cheerfully, with Carol, or protagonist, marrying a small town doctor, a one Mr. Kennicott, and stumbling from St Paul into the inbred, gossipy community of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. Lewis is quick-witted and dry, and every page seems to have some sort of wry observation about America and its people, about the sexes, about education. On Mrs. Bogart, the most virulent of the town gossips:

She was a widow, and a Prominent Baptist, and a Good Influence. She had so painfully reared three sons to be Christian gentlemen that one of them had become an Omaha bartender, one a professor of Greek, and one, Cyrus N. Bogart, a boy of fourteen who was still at home, the most brazen member of the toughest gang in Boytown.  


Mrs. Bogart was not the acid type of Good Influence. She was the soft, fat, sighing, indigestive, clinging, melancholy, depressingly hopeful kind. There are in any chicken yard a number of old hens who resemble Mrs. Bogart, and when they are served at Sunday noon dinner, as fricasseed chicken with thick dumplings, they keep up the resemblance.

Ha! I mean, calling gossips hens is maybe nothing new, but the way he takes it to this extreme conclusion, the capital letters – this is all funny to me. The beginning is thickly adjectival; some sections only long descriptions of place with bending semi-colons between them; a sort of Epic catalog of the armaments of small town. I laughed along with it, because he’s funny, just objectively, but then also because I was substituting the name Sauk Centre – where Lewis is from – for Gopher Prairie, pretending that what happens in Gopher Prairie stays in Gopher Prairie, willfully ignoring that this is not some grudge-match between Lewis and his home town, but a smarter, more encompassing indictment of whatever was passing for the “real America” of his day. 

I’m going to tell several hundred off-topic stories here, so gird your loins, folks. I hale from the proud state of Minnesota, and my folks were heavy into Sinclair Lewis when I was growing up. So much so that we visited Sauk Centre, Minnesota multiple times as a child, because Sauk Centre was Lewis’s hometown and the model for the satirical town of Gopher Prairie in Main Street. I’ve gone to his grave, walked through his house, and know all kinds of random trivia about him. Mum has the bed he owned when he lived in Duluth. (Duluth, MN being another town he took apart in his novel Babbitt. Also, hey, did you know that the name babbitt – from the eponymous character of Lewis’s book – became a common noun, meaning a self-satisfied middle-class materialist? Or babbittry, which may be an even better word, which refers to this kind of person’s actions? You didn’t? Philistine.) During the last half of my read, I was staying with my Grandma, who came from a town much like Gopher Prairie. “Oh, you’re reading that?” she said, with one of her enigmatic laughs. “I re-read Babbitt last year.” I asked her what she thought. “Yep, I knew a lot of people like him,” was her only reply. I tried to get more out of her, but she just shook her head. I don’t know if this kind of terseness means anything to other people, but coming from Grandma, it spoke volumes to me.

All this Lewis mania happened when I was very young though, and part of the fun of reading this book has been pestering my folks for stories about Lewis and Sauk Centre and all the weird stuff they know about him, and correcting my fuzzy drifting memories of that time. I remember standing in the museum – or maybe the hotel? – looking at the drawings local school children had done of his books, and feeling weird about the pictures for Arrowsmith that depicted an anvil and some arrows. That can’t be right. It amuses the crap out of me that these kids lauded the Famous Native Son of Sauk Centre, Minnesota with absolute ignorance. I think Lewis would be pleased, in a perverse way. When his brother went to bury the urn containing Red’s remains – Lewis was called Red by his friends – in an act of great satire if it were done by a character – his brother balked at burying the urn itself. Maybe you could use it again or something? Too nice to bury, anyhow. It was a calm, windless day, the kind of deep cold, high pressure system that sits still and echoing over Minnesota in the dead of winter. His brother decided to dump the ashes, and at the moment he did, the wind picked up out of nowhere and scattered Red all over the graveyard. It got so cold that night, that many of the windows up and down Main Street cracked. The Palmer House, where Lewis worked as a youth, is haunted, or so they say – though not by Lewis – and when I stayed there as a kid, it sparkled with drama and danger. 

I have no idea why I’m telling all these Middlewestern Gothic tales, because Main Street is not Gothic, but parts of it were scary as shit, for me. Published 90 years ago, this satire nails the ever-loving crap out of so much of American culture, culture that has remained disturbingly similar for nearly 100 years. So, yeah, the parts about semi-English speaking Scandinavian/German rurals maybe would only work for someone whose ancestors were exactly that, but Lewis’s portrait of emerging (sub)urban plutocrats and their petty, depressing babbittry (see what I did there?) was both gleefully accurate and, well, horrifyingly accurate. The satire is also deft because it’s aimed in two directions: at his main character, a somewhat flighty reform-minded housewife, and at the town she so ineffectually seeks to reform. 

Much of this book reminds me of Austen, but I don’t want to say that too loudly lest people misunderstand. Especially at the beginning, it is very domestic, and centers on the social lives of a very large cast of characters. Carol is an Emma Woodhouse of sorts, though more a middle-class version, if such a thing is possible (and I think it is.) There’s lots of social burlesque and cringe-inducing missteps both by Carol, and by everyone around her. Carol’s also not far from Catherine Moreland from Northanger Abbey (maybe my jump to Gothic wasn’t so far off) in that she says incredibly revolutionary things, really critical things, and no one much pays her mind because she’s just some girl. Lewis also has an incredibly touching sensitivity to women’s experience, one that I didn’t expect from a male writer of this era. An argument with her husband:

“Let me tell you a fable. Imagine a cavewoman complaining to her mate. She doesn’t like one single thing; she hates the damp cave, the rats running over her bare legs, the stiff, skin garments, the eating of half-raw meat, her husband’s bushy face, the constant battle, and the worship of spirits who will hoodoo her unless she gives the priests her best claw necklace. Her man protests, ‘But it can’t all be wrong!’ and he thinks he has reduced her to absurdity. Now you assume that a world that produces a Percy Breshnahan [a famous Son of Gopher Prairie] and a Velvet Motor Company must be civilized. I suggest Mrs. Bogart as a test. And we’ll continue in barbarism as people as nearly intelligent as you continue to defend things as they are because they are.” 


“You’re a fair spieler, child. But, by golly, I’d like to see you try to design a new manifold, or run a factory and keep a lot of your fellow reds from Czech-slovenski-magyar-godknowswheria on the job! You’d drop your theories so darn quick! I’m not any defender of things as they are. Sure. They’re rotten. Only I’m sensible.”  


He preached his gospel: love of outdoors, Playing the Game, loyalty to friends. She had a neophyte’s shock of discover that, outside of tracts, conservatives do not tremble and find no answers when an iconoclast turns on them, but retort with agility and confusing statistics.

This all goes down mid-book, and I was still rah-rah-ing and sighing along with Carol, even as Lewis skewered her as the parlor radical, the armchair revolutionary, comfortable, beholden to the system, part of the system, inextricable, hypocritical. Ha ha! Look at Carol make an ass of herself in front of a bunch of asses! Ha ha! Carol is treated badly, shunned, brought into line by the gossiping cruelty, but she’s insulated and made ineffectual by her money, her status. She’s the doctor’s wife. Her ideas are eccentricities and not threats. 

Then the hammer drops. There are two episodes in the middle half of the book – spoilers ahead, although I will try to be as non-specific as possible – that clove me in two, and dealt with how terrible this bourgeois decorum can be. One was about the town Socialist, a personable logger-tinkerer, who blows into and out of town through the first part of the book. (I know this guy; I work with him. Like Carol, I’ve always been fond of how outside society my colleague is, how modular his life. He can pick up and go, while the rest of us are bolted down.) The plutocrats like scoring points off of The Red Swede, but he’s cheerfully impervious. But then he settles down into a really wonderful marriage to Carol’s maid, and Carol defies the town in continuing to associate with the maid, and him, even though she mostly does it on the sly. Then, oh God….I kind of don’t want to talk about it. I’ll just say that however bad it gets, it can get logarithmically worse when people demand obeisances for kindnesses that should be a requirement if you want to call yourself human. And then punish you for calling them out. God help my friend if he ever has anything to lose. 

Then a girl goes to a dance with Cy Bogart, Widow Bogart’s son, narrowly avoids being raped, and is run out of town for her trouble. Cy brags and blames, and gets in good with the corner-chatting men of the town. Widow Bogart goes screaming to the school board. Carol tries her hardest to help the girl, and everyone knows that Widow Bogart is a sanctimonious bitch, and that Cy is trouble, but it doesn’t matter. The girl is ruined. She leaves under a cloud. 

Her letter to Carol, a little later:

…& of course my family did not really believe the story but as they were I must have done something wrong they just lectured me generally, in fact jawed me till I have gone to live at a boarding house. The teachers’ agencies must know the story, man at one almost slammed the door in my face when I went to ask about a job, & at another the woman in charge was beastly. Don’t know what I will do. Don’t seem to feel very well. May marry a fellow that’s in love with me but he’s so stupid that he makes me scream.”

It’s so awful it makes me die. It’s more awful because I identify with Carol, possibly in a way that Lewis never intended. I’m a Midwestern housewife type. I am comfortably Liberal, while languishing in a life that is incredibly conservative: marriage, monogamy, children, mortgage, &c &c. It’s real nice of me to espouse my little ideas over coffeecake, but it doesn’t actually get anything done, and it sure doesn’t undo all the damage done by the Widow Bogarts of the world, and their sons. Lewis’s portrait of Carol is affectionate, more affectionate than his portrait of the town of Gopher Prairie, but it’s still like hugging one of those wire mommies in that horrible experiment. 

I don’t know that I can go on with this review, because I don’t want to fall into a bunch of self-pity and hand-wringing. Lewis has already satirized that, so it would be mawkish and redundant. Satire is depressing, when it’s done well, because it’s true. It’s even more depressing when a satire from a century ago can feel fresh and current. I’m definitely going to read more Lewis, but not until I heal up a bit.

As side note: Sinclair Lewis, people, not Upton Sinclair. Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, a socialist indictment of the treatment of labor in America, which has been somewhat mistakenly remembered as a gross-out about meat packing*; Sinclair Lewis was a satirist who was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’ve had to make this distinction too many times when I told people I was reading this book.

*I mean, it is a gross out about meat-packing, but I think Upton was trying more to galvanize people about the treatment of people. 

An Elegy for New York: Zone One

Maybe it was just a matter of the timing of my read because the tenth anniversary was last week, but I feel like this book was a 9/11 novel. I don’t mean to be reductive – there’s certainly other stuff here – but there’s this thinly morose elegy for New York going on, cut with something less combative than sarcasm and more emotional than irony. I spent the fortnight leading up to 9/11/11 – a stutter of a date – narrowly avoiding public commentary, while committing a series of glancing asides with friends. Where were you? 9/11 in public has been rendered cinematic, that famous long-shot of the towers burning is maybe too restrained for Michael Bay, but it certainly lacks the ashy situated experience of the day, all phone calls and slowly dawning horror. One thing that kept popping up in my conversations of rememory was the almost whispered question – do you remember the people jumping, falling from the towers? Do you remember the reports of the smack of their bodies hitting the ground? Do you remember the footage? It’s gotta be out there somewhere, not that I want to see it again, but it’s been collectively wiped from our retinas, an eye rub that seeks to dislodge the sleep-ash of the nightmare. But it’s been ten years. We’ve stuttered into our new normal, the uneasy and easy everyday of a world walking on. 

 Zone One by Colson Whitehead follows with an intimate third person a character called Mark Spitz. He’s not the Olympian Mark Spitz, his name instead a post-armageddon macabre joke about his relentless averageness. Whitehead tosses off a lot of incisive, tending towards over-wrought descriptions of other characters and places, but his lead is so blank, so lacking in affect that you feel the chill of loss despite the semicoloned literary style. The action of the book takes place over three tight days, but the true incidents are lappingly recounting in flashback, the scum of the blood-tide peeled back layer by dried layer. Much of the supporting cast could dissolve into quirk-fests if it weren’t for constant reminders of the sources of these quirks, the almost laughingly named disorder PASD – Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder. PASD when spoken aloud sounds like “past”, a sometimes funny, always awful double entendre. 

Mark Spitz – and this name is never familiarized to Mark, nor do we ever learn his given name – begins the book cleaning out “stragglers” from the titular Zone One, which is a section of Manhattan barricaded from the rest of the island by the reforming government of the US and cleared of the more active skels. (This set-up is not dissimilar to the set-up for 28 Weeks Later, though the colonial and family psychodrama aspects are much more understated.) The zombies are Romerian (Romeroian? Both of these are ugly adjectives; I apologize) – shambling, biting, unintelligent and relentless – but for a small percentage of stragglers – the undead frozen in tableau, unmoving, unblinking. Mark Spitz and his sweeper team work through the grids of this zone building by building, opening the closets, shooting the active skels and casually trying to divine the mysteries of the stragglers. Why here, bent over a copy machine? Why in a field flying a downed kite? Are these the actions that defined their lives, or just a burp of a recording set to pause at a random frame?

The social rules of survivors recounting the trauma of Last Night are meticulously cataloged by Mark Spitz. There’s the Silhouette, for those to whom no connection was felt; the Anecdote, suitable for large groups and the more long-term of the short-term traveling companions; then there is the Obituary, told only to the intimate, though not without rehearsal. This declension of the narratives of trauma reminded of my fortnight of 9/11 recountings this year. I was getting ready for work when I got a call from my sister in Midtown after the first plane but before the second, and then a gush of extraneous details; a friend tells of the ash beginning to fall on Brooklyn; another relating only the tersest of details. I don’t know if I’m allowed to quote from the bound galley I have, so please know that this may not be in the final draft, but, “At their core, Last Night stories were all the same: They came, we died, I started running.” The towers were hit, and then they fell, and where we were at the time is both intimate and immaterial. 

Then there is the New Yorkiness of this book, a resident recounting his mixed irritation and affection for the cityest of American cities, carefully prodding nostalgia that at any moment might stir and bite. And when it does, put it down with a bullet. There’s a lot of that insular provincialism found in any person writing about their hometown – a running gag where Mark Spitz refers to Connecticut, where he spent a bad part of the interregnum, always with a damning adjective: damned Connecticut, hated Connecticut, abhorrent Connecticut; or a one-line dismissal of the Midwest which had me both laughing and bridling. Critically elegiac, the love/hate of the before that did not prepare for the after. Sometimes this doesn’t work, and I found myself boring through a description of the family eatery, its essayish tone slipping to droning, too many meanings, too much memory. But I see your point. 

There’s the stink of the inevitable all over this story, and if you’re paying attention at all, you will know how this three days in Zone One is going to end. This is not a spoiler, but a statistic: 100% of people have died, except for the living, who will likely succumb to statistics just like the rest of history eventually. Despite the zombies, this is not a genre exercise, not really. There are no hat-tips to conventions of the zombie narrative, no attempt to science up the zombies or ruminate on causes. Ten years later, it’s just a done deal, something to recount while picking through the mess, the carrion body of historical fact. Even then, zombies carry with them certain inexorable truths in their rotten bones into this literary landscape. Reflection is a sad, useless business, self-serving in the abstract and distracting in the specific. But reflection is also compulsive and necessary in our human states: silhouette, anecdote or obituary. What does it matter where I was? It simply matters that I was. We pick up and shamble on.

(An ARC of this book was provided to me free of charge by the publisher, but no conditions were put on my review. Fyi.)

Daughter of Smoke and Bone: Auspicious Beginnings

I think I made a mistake when I read Daughter of Smoke & Bone so quickly after coming off of the high of Lips Touch: Three Times. Laini Taylor’s got a hothouse style, bejeweled and voluptuous, but cut with a street level sense of banter. This really worked for me in Lips Touch, but here I felt the style was unsteady, or possibly just badly matched to the setting. I’ve complained at length about “poetic language” elsewhere, but the sort form of my complaint is how sometimes writers mistake ornament for essentials, writing a bunch of flower petals when you should write the rose down to the roots. This started reading like that at points: everyone an impossible collection of traits both exquisite and ravaged, rain-slick cobblestone, and an anachronistic American sense of the desultory charms of Europe. Sparrow in her review calls this the “American girl behind the curtain,” which is pretty freaking perfect, really. On the one hand, Taylor’s style is brilliant, making the nod to the readership, a sort of tuning fork with twin prongs of youth culture and diction vibrating against this dreamy vision of the exotic adult world. On the other…I don’t know, I don’t want to complain too loudly here because this worked for me more than it didn’t.

So. Karou is a magical teen in a parent-less Prague, living a double life of artistic adolescence and demonic purpose. Raised by monsters behind a magic door, she helps her parent surrogates acquire teeth for occult purposes by night, and has a tumbling, active teen life in the dreamiest of imaginary schools, with friends raised by gypsies and vagabonds. As I write this out, I’m impressed I didn’t throw this book down in a chapter, because a double special teen and her problems of not fitting in, especially in contrast with how fantastically desirable her beautiful boho-chic life is, this is not a story for me in the abstract. So, yeah, maybe all my bellyaching in the above paragraph is bs, because Taylor’s style is full-throated, strong enough to pull me through what is functionally a paranormal teen romance, and pull me through happily. She’s not making mistakes but choices in her writing manner, and they are smart choices. 

And, while I called this a paranormal teen romance, that’s not accurate either. Or it is for the first half, until some things change in a way that it is beyond spoiler to detail too closely. I’ll just say this: these are not simple reversals, where it turns out that good is evil and vice versa, where love conquers all. The last half does pull the flower out by the roots. The shape of Karou’s world expands and textures with her growing understandings, but it also becomes more limited, not just because all the magical doors close, but because of why those doors close, and how, even opened, the doorway will never lead to the same place. This is a nice metaphor, one that works well with the way growing up is an unwieldy mix of upped stakes and diminished prospects, how the open path of all possibilities shrinks once you understand where that path started. I am often bothered by paranormal stories because the magic is pointless, meaningless hokum – oh look at my pretty blue hair, which I have only to show you how special I am – but here the magic is hokum with teeth, and the blue hair isn’t just ornament but signifier of something true and awful: all magic, even the necessary magic of knowledge, comes at a price. 

The ending is both breathless and abrupt, the hammer hammer hammer of revelations held aloft in the moment that Karou has to decide what to do next. It’s not exactly a cliffhanger – the questions that fuel the plot have been solved, the riddles of childhood explained – but the story is far from done. I’m not frustrated so much as worried. I think I can trust Taylor, given how adept she is here at reordering the special girl paranormal narrative into something more…what…meaningful? complicated?, but until I know what happens next, where this story takes itself, I can’t say for sure. I pretty much hate when people say, oh but you have to read the whole series to know what you think of the first book, because usually those people are idiot trolls telling me I have to bump up a negative rating on some crapass thing I disliked. But, there’s some truth in it, even for things I liked, and liked a lot.* Star Wars is a kickass three-movie series, but the prequels, if you admit they exist, retroactively encrapify that ass-kicking a bit. (A bit more than a bit if I’m being honest.) So four stars, close to five, for my enjoyment of this book, for its masterful unfoldings. Pray heaven the next blooms that promise into something just as good. You can bet I’ll be reading it. 

*Though I’m not changing ratings on things I disliked, especially if I disliked them enough to stop reading and get to the 2000 page mark where I’m told things get awesome, thank you, just as I won’t change this rating even if the next disappoints.

Under the Bleachers: Northanger Abbey and the Teen Film

There are many things wrong with the film adaption of Pride & Prejudice which stars Kira Knightly, the most obvious of which is tone. Though Austen is often mistaken for a high Romantic, thrown in with the Brontës with their wild passions and Gothic styles, rainstorms and moors are not Austen’s purview. Her plots and characters are based on social realism or caricature; her sensibility is of the satirist. Darcy does not stride out over the morning grass with his coat unbuttoned, and Elizabeth would never smirk her way through their engagement, finding it hard even to meet his eyes in the book. 

However, Joe Wright – the filmmaker – does get several things right in the adaption, my favorite being the hat-tip he makes to teen movies. There’s a scene where Elizabeth and her friend Charlotte are talking shit about Darcy after he’s snubbed Elizabeth within her earshot, and it reads like an under-the-bleachers scene in some Regency John Hughes film. Though Elizabeth and Charlotte are in their 20s, they are in a long adolescence: living at home, going to dances. When the scene has them making their cat talk and then clasping hands and laughing at how mean they are, how clever, it was a pretty perfect capture of the tone of that section of the book. 

The beginning of Northanger Abbeyis so very much a John Hughes film. Catherine is much younger than Charlotte or even Elizabeth, a tender farm-bred 17. She heads to the resort town of Bath, and it’s either a summer camp movie, or a new girl in school movie, or elements of both. Catherine has chaperons, but they are so mild and unobservant that Catherine may as well be one her own, a fact that troubles Catherine occasionally – why did you not tell me I was doing the wrong thing? Catherine is a good girl though, sweet and either dumb or innocent, because it’ s difficult to tell them apart sometimes. The narrator – and Mr. Henry Tilney, Love Interest – make great fun of Catherine’s wide-eyed inability to picky up on innuendo. There are whole pages of conversations where he is saying one thing, and she is understanding another, and only you and Henry are in on the fun. 

Oh, speaking of the narrator! Once I noticed the narrator in Persuasion, I have been in love with Austen’s narrators. Lord, they are strong voices: often wry, occasionally sarcastic, always smoothly barbed. This is the first of Austen’s novels, likely never re-written by her and published posthumously, and it reads like a first novel. The narrator gets out of hand at points, clumsily commenting on the state of the novel, addressing the reader directly. This is (a bit) charming, because it makes you think about how Austen was writing these novels primarily to amuse her family. There’s a long section bitching about the sorts of people who can be found on a Sunday at a certain intersection in Bath, and it has the ring of the inside joke, which is totally freaking adorable. But like most inside jokes, it’s not especially amusing to those of us not in on it, and comes off as a well-written traffic report. 

And speaking of early novels, this one is bisected into two discreet sections that have only the shakiest of thematic overlap. The early part of the book has Catherine meeting two sets of siblings, the Tilneys and the Thorpes. She meets Isabella Thorpe first, who is a classic mean girl, the hot girl who knows it. But Catherine is too naïve and good natured to understand Isabella’s bitchiness. Isabella’s brother is even better: cussing all the time, crude, prone to wild exaggerations and criticisms of people and events, which can be altered to their opposite with just a little prodding. This is the best coach in the world! It is about to fall apart! etc. Then Catherine meets the Tilneys. The sister is a bit of a cypher, sort of Georgeanna Darcy-ish in her mildness, but Henry is a total babe. Not because he’s super hot, but because he takes the time to talk about muslin with Catherine’s chaperon and tease her mercilessly. Interest and attention go a long was towards affection. Naïve Catherine slowly learns how to navigate a tricky social terrain based mostly in frivolity; why, yes, high school, I remember you well. 

The second half is a funny take-down of the Gothic novel, Catherine gone to visit the Tilneys in their abbey. Being a somewhat silly girl who has read too many Gothic novels, she starts imagining all sorts of fell deeds, partially helped along by Henry’s gentle teasing. The most memorable sequence has Catherine approaching a spooky old piece of furniture within her room with trembling hands, looking through all the drawers until she finds a roll of papers! What horrors will this manuscript enumerate? What dire deeds of yore!? Omg!!1!! Then, it turns out the papers are laundry lists. The plot from the first half of the novel intrudes, but somewhat distantly – there is a scandal, but it is learned about in letters, and then discussed at the breakfast table. In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia’s elopement, which learned about in letters as well, was much better played. The drama of Lydia’s scandal is acted out in the Bennet household breaking into activity – Mrs. Bennet screaming about duels, that great speech by Mr. Bennet about his culpability. Here it was just less interesting to watch.

The end? Well, the end is abrupt and unsatisfying, the plot resolved only in the most mechanical way. Catherine is turned out of the Tilney house by the father for no good reason anyone can discern. (We do learn the reason, and it doesn’t have any relationship to the earlier scandal or the first part of the book, so it feels like a lost opportunity.) The section of her going home – the cruelty of turning a 17 year old out onto the roads with no servant or pin money, forcing her to ride the Regency Greyhound back 70 miles to her house – this was a nice bit of writing. Seeing how beholden to the male head of a family everyone – but especially women – are, this was honestly freaky, and freakier than the Gothic spookings that had Catherine jumping at her shadow. It’s a pretty sly commentary on horror fictions – no, the father didn’t kill the wife, but he certainly has the very real power to make everyone miserable, put them into real danger, and destroy their lives. Watch the birdy, because the real horror is in the everyday. Nice. And just a stray thought – I loved the portrait of General Tilney – this twitchy, overbearing asshole who clearly has OCD; kind enough if you are in his good graces, and a monster if you are not. 

I’m not even going to put under spoiler that everything works out in the end, but this was mostly truncated and distant in its recounting. The narrator becomes obnoxious, relating everything and enacting speeches in a bald manner, ending with a Law & Order style dun dun – but at what cost?? I feel very affectionately towards this novel, but this is mostly because I love Austen enough to want to read this twice, just to see her grow and change as a writer. Also because when I first read it, I had much less experience with the Gothic novel. I said this before somewhere else, but for the writers we love, sometimes the failures are as interesting as the successes. (And this isn’t a full-on failure, just uneven.) Watching an author’s voice develop, from the first rough coughings to the later arias, this can be a joy to read for the beloved author. So, reader beware, this is not a smart book to start with if you’ve never read any Austen, or you don’t particularly like Austen’s more assigned readings. For me, it was an excellent October read. Spooooooky. 

Incredible Change!

I’m usually too cranky to do this sort of thing, but I’m totally giving Incredible Change-Botsby Jeffrey Brown five-stars just for making me laugh my ass off. I went to a local indy comic expo yesterday, which I was a little nervous about, because I’m a little old and with children to descend into what I imagined to be the belly of hipsterism like that. Some of the people manning booths – good lord, do you even have to shave??? But it was a nice crowd, I got to meet the author of some of my favorite kids books, and Richard found this book.

There’s probably a pretty narrow demographic of people who are going to enjoy the humor in here, because it’s an exhaustive riff off the Transformers cartoon, the one from the 80s. No aspect of the cartoon is left unfunny, from various jokes about the names: two Awesomebots named Wheeee and Balls, Balls being a golf cart, natch; the human who first meets Big Rig remarking how coincidental that he’s named Big Rig, when he looks exactly like big rig on Earth. (The continuing Balls jokes are especially nice, change-bots just shouting his name when something goes wrong. Balls! Yes?) There’s endless comic potential in the illogic of Saturday morning cartoons: the robot who says, “I forget how fragile you humans are…actually, I don’t, because my memory recall is perfect.” “Why didn’t you just radio us instead of running all the way back to base?” (These aren’t quotes, but paraphrases – too lazy to look it up.)

The story begins back on the Change-bot home planet, Electronocybercurcuitron. The Change-bots are bickering about election fraud, which has allowed the Fantasticons to win. The Fantasticons are the bad guys, and it’s a running joke how there’s absolutely no difference in their motivations or speeches. But good gravy, do not make this sound highfalutin. The Awesomebots rally together, “We’ll go to the Fantasticon Chamber of Commerce in peaceful protest…an extremely well-armed peaceful protest!” Thus begins the war that destroys their planet, after which they come to an agreement, build a rocket, and then crash-land on Earth, restarting hostilities.

Honest to God, have no idea why I’m giving you the plot. This is a scaffold of one-liners that connects with other short jokes to blend into a giant metallic body of a colossal mechajoke, which goes chee cha chu chee when it transforms. Bew! Bew! The art is a perfect match with the subject, kinda all-caps spaz art favored by young boys.

A lot of this humor is on well-traveled ground, like the romantic scene between what appears to be the only girl-Change-bot, Siren, who is a police car, and um, some other guy. It fades to black, and then you see the next panel, dark, with clank clank, then the next with clank clank clankclankclankclank. Robot Chicken has more or less run this joke into the ground with the recurring sketch of a robot humping a washing machine. Whatever. Still funny.

I read this straight through to the sequel, Incredible Change-Bots Two, which might have been even better. (That one has an extended riff on putting together Lego sets which had me crying – “Does anyone have a red, flat, four-piece?” “Don’t use your teeth.”) The later seasons/sequels to this kind of show always get so much more convoluted and weird – characters showing up out of nowhere, people returning from the dead without an explanation, time travel! Just totally my kind of stupid humor.