Monday, November 24, 2014

The Divine Invasion by Philip K. Dick

What a tragic realm this is, he reflected.  Those down here are prisoners, and the ultimate tragedy is that they don't know it; they think they are free because they have never been free, and do not understand what it means.  This is a prison, and few men have guessed.  But I know, he said to himself.  Because that is why I am here.  To burst the walls, to tear down the metal gates, to break each chain.  Thou shall not muzzle the ox as he treadeth out the corn, he thought, remembering the Torah.  You will not imprison a free creature; you will not bind it.  Thus say the Lord your God.  Thus I say.

The working title for The Divine Invasion was VALIS Regained.  I would have liked that.  As a sequel to VALIS, it's somewhat unsatisfying; it shares no characters, no plot lines.  But the strange central idea of Dick's fictional-universe-cum-actual-philosophy is here: that God was exiled to outer space millennia ago, and that we've been living in an imaginary universe ever since.  The Divine Invasion stages God's return to Earth--something attempted, but not achieved, in VALIS--as a young boy, Emmanuel.

Emmanuel, like Christ, is the product of a virgin birth, this time on a remote planet where people live in pods isolated from one another and separated by an inhospitable wasteland.  The protagonist Herb Asher helps Emmanuel and his mother, Rybys, return to Earth, but malicious government forces attack the incoming ship, forcing the injured Herb into suspended animation.  The crash also inflicts brain damage and amnesia on Emmanuel, who must slowly remember that he is God and recover the true extent of his power.  Like all of Dick's books, there are strange tangents that intersect with the main plot at oblique angles, including a popular diva who sings 16th century English folk ballads.  Also, the prophet Elijah's there, and he's like three thousand years old.

The Divine Invasion is not as satisfyingly bonkers as VALIS, mostly because it lacks the layered biographical irony of that book.  But I did really love the ending, which dramatizes the choice Herb has to make between the God-child Emmanuel and a seductive goat-creature identified with Belial, or Satan:

Gray truth, the goat-creature continued, is better than what you have imagined.  You wanted to wake up.  Now you are awake; I show you things as they are, pitilessly; but that is how it should be.  How do you suppose I defeated Yahwah in times past?  By revealing his creation for what it is, a wretched thing to be despised.  This is his defeat, what you see -- see through my mind and eyes, my vision of the world: my correct vision.

Did I mention the goat communicates by telepathy?  It's weird.  But it also provides an insight into what Dick was trying to do by writing science fiction, and why he so frequently layers his work with false, imagined worlds (like the post-WWII world of The Man in the High Castle, for example).  Belial presents a choice between the "gray truth" and the hopeful ideal world that Emmanuel, damaged and immature, offers instead.  At the end of the book--spoilers here--the goat-creature is killed when someone loves and pities it.  To pity the world of "gray truth" is to imagine a better one, and to kill it by imagining.  I like that.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Paris Review Review

Before the flight I was invited for lunch at a London club with a billionaire I'd been promised had liberal credentials.  He talked in his open-necked shirt about the new software he was developing that could help organizations identify the employees most likely to rob and betray them in the future.  We were meant to be discussing a literary magazine he was thinking of starting up: unfortunately, I had to leave before we arrived at the subject.  He insisted on paying for a taxi to the airport, which was useful since I was late and had a heavy suitcase.  --Outline, by Rachel Cusk

I wasn't going to write a review of The Paris Review on this hallowed blog, but after reading some comments made by the editor about The Goldfinch, I felt compelled to address the magazine.  Specifically, Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, stated, "A book like The Goldfinch doesn't undo cliches--it deals in them . . . . It coats everything in a cozy patina of 'literary' gentility' . . . . Nowadays, even The New York Times Book Review is afraid to say when a popular book is crap."

I felt compelled to write this review because, with a few notable exceptions, The Paris Review has become a bastion of pretentious "literary" work that is crap.  A perfect example is Cusk's Outline, a serialized novel that, by coincidence, started at the same time as my subscription.

Outline is a novel about a writer who travels to Greece to teach a creative writing course.  First, I'll note that in general I hate stories about writers.  There is something unusual about writers that makes me distrustful of them as protagonists.  Writer-protagonists reflect the lack of diversity in their authors' life/creativity.  Outline is no different.    The novel is about the protagonist having conversations with various people opening up about their lives.  The common thread is all of them feel somehow robbed by the promise of life.  The opening lines are a potent symbol for this thread--the protagonist is promised something, but when the time comes, that thing does not materialize.

The writing, though ostensibly literary, is boring.  The characters' dissatisfaction with their lives rings hollow.  And this theme flows throughout stories in The Paris Review, as though the target audience of the magazine is people, just past their prime and coming to terms with the fact that they haven't lived up to their potential.

This is terribly boring.

The interviews are no better.  They focus on writers (who, for the most part, I haven't heard of; though, I won't hold the magazine liable for my own ignorance) discussing their craft.  Usually, these interviews are self-indulgent, boring, and patronizing towards other writers.

So, if Lorin Stein wants to fault The Goldfinch for being crap, I would fault The Paris Review for being pretentious and self-indulgent.

That said, I did renew my subscription of the magazine because, when the magazine shines, it shines.  On average, there's at least one good story in each issue (see infra I'll list the stories I enjoyed).  This makes the subscription worth it, in my opinion.  And the Review's interview of Chris Ware was really good, motivating me to buy at least one of his books.

In conclusion, this: The Paris Review is worth reading, but not so good it should feel entitled to talk shit about other writers, popular or not.

Randy Fiedler-approved short stories:

A Dark and Winding Road by Ottessa Moshfegh
Magic and Dread by Jenny Offill
Empathy by J.D. Daniels

To the Lake by Luke Mogelson
Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets by Zadie Smith
The Window Lion by Bill Cotter

No Place for Good People by Ottessa Moshfegh
Big Week by Zadie Smith

Locals by David Gates
The Art of Comics #2 with Chris Ware (an interview)

I won't address the poetry because I continue to have no taste for it (and, admittedly, one of the reasons for me to subscribe was to force myself to read and think about poetry).  Those of you who only want to read one or two stories, I'd recommend both of the Zadie Smith stories which stand out as (far and above the others) good.  And, again, the Chris Ware interview was really good.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Lost Tribe of Coney Island by Clarie Prentice

America is full of forgotten places. Some were never known to more than a few people to begin with; others spent considerable time in the zeitgeist before that fickle friend moved on to another place, another thing. Coney Island falls into the latter category. America’s first amusement park--though that description doesn’t really cover its breadth in its heyday--served as a social center for the States at the turn of the century, only to be overshadowed by the Walt Disneys and Universals of the world. Chris tells me Coney Island isn’t what it used to be, but for a glimpse of its halcyon days, read The Lost Tribe of Coney Island.

Not that the book is only--or even primarily--about the titular island, but Coney Island looms tall in the semi-tragic story of the small group of Igorrotes, a native tribe from the Philippines. It looms not only because the middle section of the book takes place there, but because the attitudes and national sentiment that made Coney Island what it was--the willingness to try anything, the passionate pursuit of novelty--are necessary ingredients in the tale of Truman Hunt--lieutenant governor, showman, shyster, fugitive--and his quest to make a bunch of money by displaying the Igorrotes for a curious and vouyeristic public.

Selling the exhibit with the sensationalism of dog-eating and headhunting, Truman wasn’t about to let little things like a new wife and child, the Igorrotes’ sacred customs, or basic human decency get in the way of making some money and giving the people what they wanted. As with most debacles, it didn’t start out this way. Thoug he was always controlling, Truman starts the story with what seems like a genuine, if somewhat patronizing, regard for the natives. As time goes on, however, his treatment of them grows worse and worse, until the entire group ends up on the run from the law. Tribe ends up in a pair of courtroom battles; unfortunately, since this is a true story, they don’t end with the Igorrotes mounting a passionate defense while Truman looks on agape. Instead (SPOILERS FOR A TRUE STORY), they win their first trial only to be pulled back into a second, which they lose when Truman’s attorney appeals to the racism and bigotry of the jury.

There’s a bittersweet coda to the book, but ultimately, it paints a vivid picture of an America that no longer exists, for better or for worse. It would be nice to think that we’re above the sort of “strange culture as entertainment” in our enlightened age; unfortunately, one look at TLC tells us that some things never change.

Because of family events, I’m writing this review well after I’ve finished the book. In case it’s not clear, this is a great book. Well-written and one of the most entertaining nonfiction books I’ve ever read, if the premise interests you at all, do pick it up.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Demian by Herman Hesse

Emil Sinclair is on a search to find himself. Starting the story as an innocent kid who nevertheless senses there is a darker part of the world to which he is not yet privy, he falls into bad company, has his facade of innocence ripped away, and is eventually brought to self-awareness by art, a few acquaintances, and the titular Demian, an enigmatic embodiment of aloof perfection.

I'm perfectly willing to admit that, as premises go, this isn't a bad one. Of Human Bondage is very similar structurally, for instance, and it's one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. And Demian starts out with a lot of promise--and it's worth noting that the writing is quite good clear through--but fizzles out in a mess of self-important, unengaging crap.

The opening vignette in the novel would have made a great standalone story: Emil, hoping to impress an older boy, tells an elaborate lie about how he and some other boys regularly steal apples from a nearby orchard. After extracting an oath from Emil that the story is true, the older boy blackmails him, telling him there is a reward for the person who turns in whoever has been stealing the apples, and agreeing not to rat on Emil only if he is paid an equivalent amount. Fearing the reprisal of his parents and the police, Emil engages in petty crime--stealing from said parents, mostly--to pay his debt, all while feeling as though he has left the world of good and stepped inextricably into the world of evil.

The problem with extracting even this section of the novel, which drums up a real sense of dread over a dilemma that the adult reader knows isn't really serious, is that it's resolved by bringing in the book's walking, talking Deus Ex Machina, Demian. He talks to the bully and the bully backs off, never to speak to Emil again. If you're hoping to learn what was said, keep hoping. It cheapens the whole episode and makes it feel like the scene in a bad action movie where the villain kills his right hand man just to show how evil he is.

And what can I say about Demian? He's never given much of a personality or, really, much to do besides dispense cryptic wisdom and look pretty. The most interesting thing about his character is the homoerotic subtext that run through the novel, which is never mentioned or alluded to, which makes me wonder if Hesse was aware and choosing this as the one place to inject subtlety into his story, or if he was so in love with the character himself that he was unaware of how it came across. The subtext, alas, is just another area where Demian refuses to pay off.

The story ends SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER with Emil living in some sort of commune with Demian, Demian's mother--who Emil really wants to (and maybe does?) sleep with--and a few other seekers who, Emil realizes, are just too caught up in their own beliefs to recognize the essential oneness of the universe, or whatever. Hesse won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but there's no evidence of why here--this book blows. It's a novel of ideas with no novel ideas, a character study with no real characters, a story without any stakes.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Contract with God by Will Eisner

A Contract with God is Will Eisner's first graphic novel, and, in fact, is commonly considered to be the first "graphic novel" ever written. The introduction in my copy made it sound like Eisner or his agent coined the term to gain some respectability, since Eisner was coming from a long career in comic books, with his iconic superhero, The Spirit.

Reading Contract now, decades after its publication and the sea change it helped usher in regarding how the literary establishment views sequential art, it's hard to believe that it was ever necessary to dress it up in special phrases. A Contract with God holds up beautifully both as a work of visual art and concise, thematically-heavy storytelling.

So with that out of the way, what's it all about? There's a little irony in the label "graphic novel" as applied here, since the volume is really a short story collection, comprised of four narratives related primarily, maybe only, by their protagonists' shared neighborhood, the fictional Dropsie Ave. in New York City in the 20s and 30s. Eisner based the stories on people he had known--he claims in the introduction that all four stories are true, even though he has heavily fictionalized them--and you can feel the grit coming through, although the artwork isn't exactly Frank Miller... but more on that in a moment.

The stories within aren't lighthearted romps. More often tan not, they deal with pitch black thematic material and pitiful, desperate people. The eponymous story opens the collection, and by page three, Frimme Hirsh is walking home from his preteen daughter's funeral in the pouring rain. The story concerns the titular contract, made by the saintly Fremmie when he was young, and plays out like the story of Job if Job had turned on God during his trials. Screaming, "We had a contract!' you can almost see Fremmie's faith collapse, as he goes from saint to shyster to successfully exploitative businessman in a few evocative panels. Eisner was working out his rage at God on the page--his own seventeen year old daughter had recently died when he wrote the story--and every ounce of it is there on the page, from Fremmie's slumped shoulders to the dead rage in his eyes.

The story ends, as do the other three, with a Twilight Zone-like twist, albeit nothing supernatural, but unlike many stories of this nature, the power in the stories isn't from the sudden veer--it's from the finely sketched characters who are being put through the ringer and, more than often, emerging badly damaged.

A quick word on the art: Eisner let the story dictate the art, so, as that approach might indicate, page layouts vary from a dozen panels to pages with one central image and a lot of text. But the text is good, and those images... I am not qualified to critique the visual arts, but Eisner's drawing are some of the best I've seen. Not photorealistic, but real, loose but disciplined, and, most importantly, communicative. There's no confusing Eisner's character with each other--from their faces to their clothes to their posture and body language, the man was a master of the form and it shows on every page.