Category Archives: Books

Why I Did Not Love The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games movie comes out tomorrow, and so far, it seems to have a pretty good critical reception. I feel kind of left out of the whole Hunger Games mania/excitement. I’m sure I’ll see the movie at some point, but I just can’t get myself worked up into a froth about it, as I was not hugely amazed by the book.

I liked the book. It was diverting and page turn-y. I thought that Katniss kicked way more ass than a certain boy wizard protagonist. I liked the world it was set in. But, I did not love it. It did not rock my world, change my life, or otherwise blow my mind. It was fine and I did not hate it, but I had a few fairly major problems with it. Such as:

It’s not nearly brutal or scary enough. The Hunger Games is ostensibly a book about kids killing other kids. However, the violence in the book was sanitized to a degree that I was never scared of or disgusted by it. There were no instances where I felt pity or horror or sickness at what I was reading, there was no time in which I felt any kind of terror about spurting blood or deadly fights. The vast majority of the action happens away from Katniss and therefore away from the reader, since the book is in first person. If you want the reader to find something horrible (and I’m assuming that that’s Suzanne Collins’ goal) then have to take a page from Upton Sinclair and show them something horrible.

The tributes from the wealthy districts are too clearly the bad guys. It was kind of a cop-out for Collins to make the tributes from the wealthy districts obvious villains. Whether or not they’re favored to win, or whether or not they have training and resources, they are still children who are being savagely manipulated by adults. Collins gives us characters whose deaths we actively hope for, and that undercuts the moral authority of her story.

Despite trying to tell a story about why deathmatches are bad, we still root for Katniss. Collins is trying to illustrate how the Games are a horrible display of power on behalf of the Capital. However, we as readers still hope that Katniss kills people and wins the whole thing, so even though we’re supposed to be deploring the whole system we’re still rooting for a specific outcome within it. That’s a highly uncomfortable position to be in.

Katniss is conveniently absolved of killing anyone other than a “bad” tribute. Throughout the book, Katniss manages to coast by and, despite being surrounded by death, very rarely has to actually get her hands dirty. She kills very few people in close quarters, and Collins lets the “bad” tributes do the dirty work of killing off the more innocent participants. I kept wondering if Rue was going to try to kill Katniss, or vice versa. That would have been interesting, but it never happened. Which reminds me…

Peeta is a loser. Seriously. Katniss should have arrow-ed him in the face. Kind of can’t stand that guy.

And finally…

It’s not as good as Battle Royale. But then, few things are.

Blood and Boomsticks: Why The Evil Dead Musical is Kind of Like Ulysses

This past weekend I saw Evil Dead: the Musical. The title alone is something of a ridiculous novelty item, and I enjoyed the mere fact of saying to people “I’m going to go see Evil Dead: the Musical this weekend.” “What a delightful sounding quirky event!” people said in astounded reply, “you certainly are always doing something enjoyable and wacky!” Yes. Yes I am. So, how was it?

Uneven. High school musical-esque. Borderline terrible. Hugely enjoyable. I hated and loved it.

ED: tM (at least the production I saw) is by no means “good” or any approximation thereof. As a play and a stage show, it’s not even passably okay. Despite that, though, I enjoyed myself immensely. Walking out of it, I was torn between how bad I knew the production was, versus how much fun I had watching it.

First, the bad stuff: the acting was stilted, the singing was average-to-bad, the sound went in and out, and the pacing was terrible. Scenes bled into and out of each other with no kind of logic or cohesion, and there was no attempt whatsoever at horror or anything even approaching mild scares. More than anything else, it looked like someone’s Evil Dead fan fiction was being acted out on stage. As a musical production in and of itself, I knew in the relentlessly logical and taste-having section of my brain that ED:tM was bad, low-grade, terrible, putrid, and other flavors of general non-quality.

Despite that, during the performance my state of being could have been best described as “having fun.”

Even though I knew that ED: tM was kind of bad, I left very happy with my theater-going experience. I had fun. Not just a little fun. Lots of fun. I really, really enjoyed seeing a dude dressed up as Ash say “boomstick” and “groovy.” I liked watching dancing zombies and evil trees, and I utterly loved sitting in the splatter zone, getting a bucket of fake blood dumped over my head, and being subsequently assaulted by a zombie during the final musical number.

There was also a zombie (excuse me- “deadite”) who kept making bad puns throughout the whole show. As stupidly vaudvillian as it all was, I kind of loved the constant stream of groan-worthy bad jokes. But again- I knew that what I was watching was objectively terrible.

So, why the hell did I like this? Why on Earth did I thoroughly enjoy something that I knew was bad? This is something that bothered me about ED: tM, and a good deal of other media as well.

ED: tM works (if it does work) only insofar as the viewer is a fan of the Evil Dead movies. In fact, the whole thing kind of is fan fiction, in that it’s a kind of media where most of the enjoyment comes from recognizing things. The audience didn’t have fun so much because the Ash on stage said “groovy.” Instead, we all collectively remembered how awesome it was when Bruce Campbell said “groovy” and enjoyed that bit of fan-memory in a sudden collective burst.

Also: fake blood. I got doused with the stuff, and getting coated in a layer of ersatz gore is almost always fun.

It’s very tempting to write off nostalgia, the fun of recognition, and fan service as bad reasons to enjoy something. While those are not the best reasons for a given thing being “good,” I don’t believe that nostalgia or the fun of recognizing fan-favorite lines like “gimmie some sugar, baby” are illegitimate reasons for liking something. Ulysses, a hoity-toity book that is supposedly the best bit of English word-art ever put to the page, is almost 67.5% Homeric fan fiction. When I read Ulysses most of the fun I had was picking out the references to literature and mythology, and finding parallels with the Odyssey. I actually alternated back and forth between reading Joyce and Homer so I could pick out the various parallel bits. While Ulysses is enjoyable as a rather nicely written book in and of itself, the added dimension of reading it as a classical literature fanboy made my experience of consuming it a lot more fun. I felt like I “got” when Joyce was winkng at me- that is, if someone who had only one eye can be said to “wink” in any real sense.

That feeling was magnified severalfold in a theater. Sitting in a room with a collection of like-minded fan-nerds amplified my own enjoyment of the theatrical goings-on. Their laughs, groans, and applause amplified my own. We were all sitting in a theater getting fan-serviced together, and it felt damn good.

I hesitate to call ED: tM a guilty pleasure, as I don’t feel at all guilty for having fun while watching it. However, I do acknowledge that a great amount of the fun I had came from external stuff already lodged in my brain prior to the performance. Would I recommend it to others? No, probably not. Did I have gobs of stupidly blood-splattered fun this weekend? Yes, absolutely, and I’d do it again.

Thoughts on End Notes Vs Foot Notes

Right now I’m reading a book that I quite enjoy. It has end notes. The end notes contain citations, so you can see where the author got his information. I’m fine with that. In fact, that’s something I want in pretty much any nonfiction book.

However, the end notes also contain asides and parenthetical remarks on the part of the author. This drives me utterly mad. When I see a very small number in the text, there is no way for me to tell whether or not following it to the back of the book will lead to additional thoughts from the author, or just a citation. Nine times out of ten it’s just a citation that I can ignore for the moment, but every so often it’s additional authorial remarks that I actually want to read. Looking at the main text, though, I have no idea what I’ll find at the back of the book. I just have to look.

I really, really, really, really hate this. It’s annoying, it’s lazy, and (worst of all) it’s an inconvenience to the reader that can be very easily remedied. Citations should be at the back of the book, and marked with end notes. They should be there for the reader, but shoved away into a different clump of pages on not intruding into the main body of text. Authorial asides, however, should be marked with an asterisk or dagger and on the same page as the main text. That way, the reader can easily glance down at them, and not have to futz around in the citation section for other stuff the author might have to say.

It boggles my mind that any book would intermingle authorial asides in with citations. It’s stupid, it’s aggravating, it has an easy solution, and any editor that sends the reader scampering back to the end of the book every half page is an awful human, and should be slapped in the face with a frozen tuna until they recant their various sins against reading.

A special exception can be made for Infinite Jest, though. Infinite Jest is cool.

The George R. R. Martin Drinking Game

It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally, finally, finally finished all of the presently existing Song of Ice and Fire books. I reread the entire series this year in preparation for A Dance With Dragons. It took me a while not because I don’t enjoy the series (I do) but as much as I love it, I often got distracted and had to read something else. The characters, plot, world and story of aSoIaF are absolutely splendid, but every so often I needed to stuff something else into my brain.

In particular, because Martin has turns of phrase that he uses over and over again in a highly characteristic way. I suspect he’s doing this purposefully, in emulation of the habits of Classical poets. Most translations of the Odyssey have turns of phrase like “the wine-dark sea,” “the grey-eyed goddess Athena,” and “the Earth that feeds us all” popping up over and over again. The explanation I always got for this is that epics were initially unwritten, and repetition like this made it easier for the poet to recall giant stories from memory.

Phrases like this pop up so often in Martin that one could easily make a drinking game out of them, as well as other Martin-isms. I don’t think this is a mark of poor writing, but it is highly noticeable and occasionally does take me out of the book a bit. Seeing repeated phrases is kind of like seeing the zipper on a movie monster’s costume. Every so often, I wanted other words banging around inside my brain and I had to take a break. The next time you feel like reading giant fantasy novels and imbibing booze, try drinking every time you read:

  • Milk of the poppy
  • Little and less
  • Much and more
  • Mulled wine
  • Leal service
  • Sweet sister
  • Wedded and bedded
  • Just so
  • It is known
  • Mummer’s farce
  • Useless as nipples on a breastplate
  • Where do whores go
  • Stick them with the pointy end
  • I know, I know, oh, oh, oh
  • Any variation of “waddle”
  • Hands of gold are always cold
  • Half a hundred
  • Our friends of Frey
  • Bent the knee
  • Any reference to mail, wool, and boiled leather in any combination
  • Any reference to Valyrian steel
  • Any reference to a blade being “so sharp you could shave with it.”
  • Any reference to the Mother being merciful
  • Any reference to the Crone’s wisdom
  • Any reference to the Father’s judgement
  • Any reference to or recitation of The Bear and the Maiden Fair
  • Any reference to The Rains of Castamere
  • Any reference to Arya being “[adjective] as a [noun]”
  • Any gratuitous description of heraldry
  • Any gratuitous description of food
  • Any time characters are referred to by their sigils, e.g, “Wolves” or “Lions”
  • Any cryptic invocation of Summerhall
  • Words are wind
  • A Lannister always pays his debts
  • Dark wings, dark words
  • The night is dark and full of terrors
  • Winter is coming

And of course, you should take a big old swig from whatever you’re imbibing every time a major character dies. Or supposedly dies. Or ends their POV chapter on an annoying cliffhanger. If you do that, you will be good and drunk, and swaying from side to side.

Be advised that if you keep doing that for more than twenty pages you will get alcohol poising and then you will die.

(Did I miss any? There are probably plenty more. Also, I’m really looking forward to The Winds of Winter.)

In Which I Finally Get Around To Reading Something By Jonathan Franzen

The Corrections has been on my “to read” list for some time. I moved quite a few copies of it when I worked in a bookstore, and Jonathan Franzen has been in the back of my mind as a Big Important Author for quite a while. The release of his new novel last year reminded me, and I finally got around to purchasing a used copy of The Corrections at Powell’s a while ago. Last week, I finally finished it.

It was very well done, and I didn’t really like it.

Let me get this out of the way first: Franzen is a phenomenally good writer. I want to make this clear in no uncertain terms, because I’m going to spend most of this post criticizing him. His characters are extraordinarily vivid, his language rich, and as I read The Corrections I felt as if he were able to stir bits of recognition in my mind. It was if I’d encountered the people and phenomena he was describing, as if he were writing what I’d thought before, but could not express. His characterization and style are superb, and I’m pretty sure I would cash in an unimportant body part to have his talent.

That said, there are two things about The Corrections that I didn’t especially care for. One was the plot, the other was the worldview that Franzen seemed to don while he was writing it.

First the plot. That’s a slightly smaller issue. The Corrections is divided into several different subsections, each of which has their own miniature arc. The book mainly focuses on Enid, the stuffy grandmother of the Lambert family, trying to get her grown children all together for one last Christmas in the small Midwestern town of St. Jude. Her children, in turn, all get various subsections and mini-plots in turn.

There is not much in the way of “action” in The Corrections, most of the activity is actually the various characters agonizing about their emotions and relationships. This does not mean, though, that Franzen does not have to provide a beginning, middle, and end. A lack of real, physical action doesn’t mean that the author is released from having to provide tension, drama, etc. There still has to be an arc, even if nothing happens. A few dramatic things do happen in The Corrections, but no real satisfying plot connects them, and the whole thing ends up felling disunited in a weird way.

Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite writers, and I’ve consistently admired her ability to make plot arcs, climaxes, and satisfying narrative based solely on the emotional lives of her characters. Next to nothing happens in To the Lighthouse, but the ending is powerful and cathartic. That novel has probably one of my favorite final lines of any book, and Woolf pulls it off because she knows that the interior lives of her characters are something that can be exciting and stimulating. A person’s revelations, emotional vulnerability, failures, or epiphanies: these are all things that can be used as capstones and plot-points in a good character-based story.

However, as vividly as Franzen paints his characters, he doesn’t seem want to give them any kind of emotional dynamism. None of the characters in The Corrections have any moments wherein we see that singular, emotional climax, where the plot-arc of their interior lives comes together and they, for good or ill, are changed. Franzen wants to write a book about the interior lives of a single family, but withholds from his characters the kind of comic or tragic catharsis or epiphany that would serve as a resolution to that narrative. And I’m not just talking about “resolution” in a good way. Horrible and tragic resolutions can be just as narratively satisfying. Franzen seems to want to give The Corrections a happy ending (of a sort), but he doesn’t earn it by showing how the characters have evolved. That does not make for satisfying storytelling, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he tried to give his characters emotional narrative climaxes, and just wasn’t very good at it.

The other, bigger issue of The Corrections, though, is the horribly bleak (and worse, inaccurate) worldview that Franzen seems to adopt while writing it.

Franzen seems to think that because he is portraying his characters as so unabashedly ugly, he is telling the truth. Because he lays bare their selfishness, their fears, their smallness, he is painting complete portraits of them. Because he does not shrink at portraying human frailty, it’s as if he thinks he boldly portrays humanity.

I don’t mind that he’s negative. That’s fine. Franzen, though, seems to mistake cynicism for truth. That’s why a lot of The Corrections reminded me of Seinfeld.

Seinfeld‘s basic premise was that its characters were selfish, small, and never learned anything. There was no real character development on the part of Jerry and Co. At no point did one really think that any of the wacky hijinks they encountered actually have any impact on how they lived their lives. The show is amusing in short bursts, but if you think about it as a long-form narrative, it doesn’t work at all. People are not static. If someone were to go through all of the weird stuff that Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer did, they would either be wise in the ways of the world or perhaps hugely cynical. They would not stay small and naive, which is precisely what those characters did. They would change.

The reason I can’t really watch Seinfeld anymore is because of its insistence that it rests upon a static zero point. I do not buy the characters or their lack of evolution or dynamism. People like that do not exist. It may occasionally be diverting, but it is not accurate or truthful.

Characters in The Corrections suffer this same fate, but Franzen seems to think that because he’s presenting a heavily negative Seinfeldian worldview, he’s somehow saying something profound or interesting. I know, I know- I’m being slightly unfair about this, that it’s a little presumptuous to make suppositions about an author’s personality based on their work. Franzen, however, seems like precisely the sort of jaded male hipster who, upon reading and misinterpreting Sartre, would tiredly declare that “Hell is other people.”

It isn’t, though, and I’ll bet that Franzen’s a smart enough guy to know better. This is the man who famously asked Oprah to stop endorsing his book, though. I would not be surprised if someone as attached to that kind of supposed authenticity has trouble accepting beauty.

And, weirdly enough, even after all that I will still read Freedom, probably when it comes out in paperback. Franzen really is a magnificent stylist, and his prose is rich enough to make me want more. I hope that in his latest offering the issues from his most famous novel have been, shall we say, corrected.

An Incomplete List of Fifteen Books

Okay, I’m doing one of these chain Facebook note things. I never do these, but this one’s about books. Apparently it has the following rules:

Rules: Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen novels you’ve read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. Tag 15 friends, including me because I’m interested in seeing what books my friends chose. (To do this, go to your Notes tab on your profile page, paste rules in a new note, cast your 15 picks, and tag people in the note.)

Okay, that’s nice. I guess the point is that you can’t pick books that say “Hey! Look at how awesome I am because of my refined taste in wordy things!” Being genuine and honest seems to be the point. Oh, well.  Here’s the (definitely incomplete) list:

1. Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson
As a kid I identified tons with Calvin, with his endemic behavioral problems, overactive imagination, and love of very large words. I love comics to this day because of Calvin and Hobbes, and Watterson showed me from a very young age that there is no contradiction between being ironic and sincere, or both snarky and poignant. Calvin is a deeply realized character, and to this day I still see a lot of myself in him. He’s also a guy who imagines killer snowmen and time travel, and there’s no contradiction in that.

2. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
Were’s in elementary school here. I was a little Catholic school kid in a dumb uniform and I was fully aware of the Christian allegorical elements of these things while I was reading them. Because, c’mon. Aslan is fucking Jesus. It’s not subtle, people. By the time I got to The Last Battle, I was fully disgusted with Lewis’ world-view, even at the young age. Lewis, in that book, is hugely judgmental of nonbelievers, casually racist, and generally thinks that dying is grand because that means you get to hang out with Jesus all the time.

This was my first inkling that religion was actually sort of fucked up. I think I was eight or something.

3. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Yes, everyone and their dog is going to choose this. This is not original. Whatever. It really is quite good, despite being hugely popular, and blew my mind into approximately 12,586,327 individual pieces back when I was twelve. I loved every overwrought word of it, and got turned into a ginormous nerd because of it. I roll funny-sided dice on a regular basis because of this trilogy, just like every else.

4. Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare.
This is the first Shakespeare play that I read, saw, and really understood. This was in middle school. Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship is defined by unspoken attraction that they act out by making fun of each other. There was this girl I liked in eighth grade, and I let her know as much by writing nasty columns about her in the school newspaper. (She happened to be the student body president, so it was kind of relevant.) Anyway, the point is that there was this girl, and I really liked her so I totally insulted her because I didn’t understand my feelings or girls or anything. Kind of like in Shakespeare.

5. 1984 by George Orwell
We’re back in eighth grade again, and this is where I learned about political satire, dystopia, and hot, hot politicized sexuality. Winston and Julia totally did it and it was political and that was totally awesome because not only were they having tons of sex, they were also totally Sticking It To The Man by bumping uglies. Jesus Christ, that was sexy back when I was, like fourteen. Also there was some other stuff. Stuff about the nature of power and control and mind-warping people into subservience. That was creepy.

6. Everything Isaac Asimov Ever Wrote by Isaac Asimov
Along with Star Trek, Asimov turned me into a total technophile. His stuff seems sort of dated at this point, but he made me believe in The Future

7. Neuromancer by William Gibson
I’m pretty sure that reading this book is a step on the road to enlightenment. Also, this really hot smart girl lent it to me. That was awesome. According to Gibson, even if The Future (which really, is where we live now) turned out to be horrible, it would still be pretty interesting. On top of that, it would be a place where we’d all look awesome whilst wearing leather and sunglasses, and have sex with hot cyborgs.

9. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
If I were to explain why this book is truly awesome, it would give away the ending. It’s neat, though, because it’s a medieval Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Really! The book is totally Holmes and Watson as monks in the Middle Ages investigating murders in a monastery that have something to do with books. If you like this book, you are automatically a giant nerd.

10. The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
At this point I’m a college freshman and have a non-ironic Che Guevera poster on my wall. There was an unfortunate chin-beard in there somewhere. The Myth of Sisyphus is basically Existentialism 101, and I still regard it as great reading if you don’t want to get depressed about how repetitive life is. Meaning in life is self-generated, and that’s actually totally okay.

11. The Collected Stories of Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Whilst in Japan, I attempted to read Japanese literature. Granted, it was in English. Akutagawa stuck with me the most. He’s quite witty, and almost cruel with how he deploys irony (though never in a way that comes off as cliched, at least not by Western standards). His story Green Onions is a great example of an author hating his characters, and loving every moment of it.

12. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
I read this in Japan while thinking a lot about the direction my life was going and what sort of person I was. It was inspiring and thought provoking. I suppose that makes me a total cliche, utterly unoriginal, and something of a parody of the white-guy-in-foreign-country-finding-himself. Whatever. My experience was genuine and neato. Shut up!

13. Ulysses by James Joyce
For a long time I thought I hated Joyce because I thought he was impenetrable. He’s not, though. I totally penetrated him, and found it a very rewarding experience. Ulysses is a puzzle box with all kinds of references, puns, jokes, and Easter eggs in it. It’s not really about anything, but it’s a totally cool aesthetic experience that stretches your brain-parts out.

14. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
This book made me want to dig up Nabokov’s corpse, eat his brain, and absorb his writing talents. While reading it I wrote an essay all Nabokov-like, and successfully pitched it to a literary event. It was the first time that I ever got paid for anything I wrote, and Nabokov helped me get there.

15. Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
I’ve read a few other of DFW’s books, but Consider the Lobster was the book that made me really love him, and sort of wish that I could be him (except without the depression part). There are very, very few authors whom I would call inspiring, but DFW is one of the most. He utterly charmed me with his wit, erudition, and utter genuine nature, and is one of the few writers whom I admire unreservedly.

Um, yes. there’s probably some other stuff, too, that I forgot.

In Praise of Mass Market Paperbacks

Like I said in my last post, I recently read Anathem. I enjoyed it, but one of the things I liked most about it was that even though it was a nearly a thousand pages, it was fairly easy to carry around. The edition that I had was a mass market paperback with rather small type. It fit easily into my bag, was lightweight, and generally not troublesome to read whilst in a coffee shop or bar. I appreciated it not only as a fun book about alien science-monks, but also as a convenient object.

Which brings me to Infinite Jest.

So far, I’m very much enjoying David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus. I’ve read several of his essays, and (like Neal Stephenson) have a gigantic man-crush on the dude. (I hope that his being dead does not make that creepy.) Anyway, the book so far is absolutely a joy to read, but I continually wish that it was smaller.

Not shorter. Smaller.

The edition of Infinite Jest that I have is an enormous bricklike doorstop of literature, a weighty tome in every sense of the word. I can feel my satchel eating into my shoulder because of its weight, and when I’m reading it in a coffee shop it takes up a prodigious amount of table space. As a book, it’s wonderful, but as an information-delivery device, it is somewhat lacking.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Infinite Jest is about the same length as Anathem, and could just as easily have been published as a mass market paperback. However, the publisher has deemed it fit that DFW’s book be an inconvenience to the reader, a ponderous and massive object. This is unfortunate, really. I would enjoy the book far more if it were not so physically troublesome, if I could actually put it in my satchel and have room for other things as well.

So, why isn’t it a mass market paperback?

Trade paperbacks are an attractive intermediary between mass markets and hardcovers. They are cheaper than hardcovers, but maintain a bit of the same gravitas that traditional unpaperback books tend to have. Mass market paperbacks are usually associated with disposable bits of entertainment- genre fiction. When one thinks of mass market paperbacks, one usually imagines lurid mystery novels with the author’s name stamped in gaudy raised type, or romance novels that are only a few steps removed from outright pornography. One thinks of SF novels based on licensed IPs such as Star Wars and Star Trek, and masturbatory jingoistic military fiction by the likes of Tom Clancy and his ilk. Horror novels and westerns are brought to mind, all genres that are (unfortunately) regarded as unliterary, unthoughtful, unworthy.

To publish a trade paperback is to announce that a book is not pulp. It is not a disposable entertainment or an unliterary bit of genre flotsam. To publish a trade paperback is to announce a book as somehow worthy. It is obvious that DFW’s publishers wished him to stand apart from novels that feature vampires and spies, and that his august work was quite literally heftier than that of the average author.

Which is a shame, really, since his book is such a pain in the ass to lug around. Mass market paperbacks are wonderful at what they do, and do not deserve their stigma. As a format, I pity them, and wish they were more highly regarded.

Of course, this whole point will become moot in a few years, when everything’s on e-readers anyway…

In Which I Read Anathem

Neal Stephenson has become something of a nerd saint, penning Snow Crash, probably one of the most widely-read SF books of the last twenty years. He’s also a fiercely intelligent cataloger of minutiae, filling books such as Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle with the kind of stuff that will make you ridiculously good at Trivial Pursuit.

Anathem, his latest book, is not his best, but I still enjoyed it immensely. It’s not as weirdly creative as Snow Crash or The Diamond Age, but even then it’s immensely engaging- provided you have a specific personality type. If you are wondering about whether or not you should read it, ask yourself the following questions:

1: Do you like books where most of the action is taken up by characters having long discussions about philosophy, science, history, and math?

2: Do you enjoy books that take place on other planets wherein the social and governmental system is somewhat different than our own?

3: Do you like made-up words, most of which are tweaked versions of Greek and Latin terms?

4: Do you like books with explanations of geometry in the appendix?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, go ahead and read Anathem. In a nutshell, the book is about a bunch of cloistered monks devoted to science on an alien world. Then (and I don’t want to give anything away) stuff happens. Big stuff. Totally gonzo, wowzers sci-fi stuff. However, the book spends the first three hundred pages grounded in a hermetic, academic atmosphere, so even when the hugely epic world-shaking plot starts up, it still feels pretty grounded. With all of the philosophical exposition, the book acts as a sort of SF, grown-up version of Sophie’s World, and I mean that in a good way.

What makes Stephenson so special, though, is that you get a real sense of joy from his work. Stephenson isn’t just smart- he seems to jump for joy at all of the wonderful stuff there is in the world, and Anathem gives you a very real sense of that. After reading Anathem, Platonism seems interesting to me all over again.

Yes, it’s one thousand pages of alien science-monks and made-up words, but it’s also a very obvious labor of love. Stephenson doesn’t just know quite a bit about the history of philosophy, he also knows precisely why it’s so interesting, so wonderful, and so worth studying. That’s why Anathem‘s 900-plus pages go by so fast- the author is jumping up and down about how wondrous the world is.

The Protagonist Syndrome

I recently started watching Carnivale with my girlfriend, and rather like it. I know that it’s one of those shows that ends without complete resolution, but I enjoy the aesthetics of it and the inclusion of supernatural elements that are at once flashy and subtle. I have one problem with it, though: I can’t stand the protagonist. He’s boring, stupid, and lacks a sense of curiosity about the obviously interesting setting he’s in. Worst of all, I can tell that the writers and directors of the show want me to identify with him. I identify far more with the carny hucksters and weirdo psychics, though. I want the show to be about them. The protagonist is dead weight.

This is a common problem.

Protagonists are supposed to be people we identify with, and all too often writers and directors interpret that as “let’s put some boring guy at the center of the action.” And it is usually a guy. And he’s almost always boring. Think about it: Who’s the most interesting character- Luke Skywalker or Han Solo? Frodo Baggins or Aragorn? Charlie Bucket or Willie Wonka? Johnathan Harker or Van Helsing? Jack or everyone else on Lost? The list goes on. All too often, perfectly interesting pieces of fiction have their weakest link front and center. Protagonists tend to be watered down, terminally decent, utterly good and rather boring schlubs who somehow get laid despite not having any edge to them at all. Frequently, they are outshone by the supporting cast, who are actually allowed to have a certain dimension of weirdness and even a personal demon or two. Protagonists, though, tend to be empty balls of uncompelling boredom.

What should a protagonist be like, though? How about Willie Lowman, someone who evokes our sympathy and pity even though his plight is different than ours. How about Dr. Frankenstein, whose ambition and lack of responsibility to his work is applicable to pretty much anyone who’s wanted to create something? How about Holden Caufield, who continually struggles for authenticity and who goes crazy while he does it? How about Orlando who retains his/her mercurial identity even though so many other things change? How about Satan in Paradise Lost, who bravely defies stated authority? These characters are all awesome protagonists. They are weird, yes, and oftentimes kind of nasty, but their authors made them real, above all else.

Protagonists don’t have to be decent, “normal” ciphers of characters. They shouldn’t be the one character in the given medium without dimension or depth. I can tell what the creators of various shows and movies are trying to do- they want to provide an empty slate that the audience can project their identifications onto. That’s hugely aggravating, though, because instead of having a person at the center of the action we have a void. The protagonist should carry a story, but all too often they seem to drag it down.

Hooray For Context!

First: “Why can’t you just enjoy it for what it is?” this has been a common complaint levied at me and other people who get overly analytical about popular entertainment. My father said precisely this when he complained about my comparisons of Avatar to Dances With Wolves. He contended that movies need to be viewed as separate, independent entities. (This was also something I heard a lot from an ex who liked fluffy romantic comedies.)

Second: “All it has going for it is character recognition.” This was a gripe by a member of a book group I go to. He said it in reference to two things. The first was Fables, a comic book series about fairy tale characters in the modern world, and then about the new Star Trek movie. “If you were to present these stories without their popular characters,” he said, “they wouldn’t work.”

In both of the above examples, it seems that people want to experience art or entertainment as singular and unrelated to the cultural context around it. Each thing must be taken on its own merits without prejudice or stereotype, seen on its own terms. This attitude is oddly noble but ultimately impossible to realize.

This attitude of experiencing art and entertainment as singular and context-less is noble because it is open-minded, and wishes to find the potential good of a given work. To attempt to see something without context or connections is often an attempt to see it as something intrinsically good. Or, in the case of my book group companion, it is to demand intrinsic goodness only in a work. In either case, there is a deeply held belief that cultural objects should carry some spark of inherent awesomeness, and that spark must be searched for without prejudice.

To some extent I think that is a good thing, and abandoning prejudices about art and entertainment is often a good idea. However, one cannot really abandon context and really see cultural objects as singular. Ask yourself: Could you have gone into the new Star Trek movie and pushed aside all of your visions and notions regarding Kirk, Spock, the Enterprise, etc.? Could you have seriously said “For the next two hours I will forget all of the reruns I saw as a kid, all of the movies, everything I know about Star Trek“? Unless you have a pathologically selective memory, the answer is probably no.

Good artists and entertainers know this. When they know that an audience will see everything in context of everything else, they will play with that and use that. Star Trek was great because it used audience expectations effectively, exploiting the feeling of recognition and connection to wonderful effect.

Two entirely different examples of artists exploiting context for effect are Psycho and Scream. Both of these movies placed prominent actresses, Vivian Leigh and Drew Barrymore, front and center on their movie posters, precisely where you would expect the main character to be, flanked by supporting casts. In both of these movies, though, the top-billed actresses are killed off before the major action takes place, confounding audience expectations. Would the shock in either of these movies have worked if the audience hadn’t seen the movie posters or didn’t know who the actresses were? No, but they didn’t really have to. Hitchcock and Craven knew what people would be expecting because of ad campaigns and movie conventions, and exploited those expectations for effect.

(Tangentially related: My enjoyment of Inglorious Basterds was greatly hampered by the difference between the movie’s trailer and the film itself. I was expecting lots of fun violence a la Kill Bill, but got a spaghetti western. A pretty good spaghetti western, yes, but I kept waiting for the grand guignol promised by the trailer.)

Embracing context and expectations, though, is wonderful. Instead of seeing a pile of things not judged on their own merit, one sees a grand interrelated network of things. Every action movie is related to every other action movie. Comedies are connected to other comedies, horror flicks to other horror flicks. Cognates, similarities, and variations abound. One can see the same convention tweaked over and over again, sometimes badly, sometimes well. Embracing context means that you like synthesis and variation, you accept that things combine and mutate. One can never really see something “on its own terms,” and I, for one, have no problem with that.