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Go out with you? Why not... Do I like to dance? Of course! Take a walk along the beach tonight? I'd love to. But don't try to touch me. Don't try to touch me. Because that will never happen again. "Past, Present and Future"-The Shangri-Las

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Outlaws and Inlaws, Part the Second.

I've expanded the scope of this "reviewing short story anthologies" project by adding a couple more anthologies: Calling the Wind: Twentieth-Century African-American Short Stories, Ed. Clarence Major, and Dangerous Visions, Ed. Harlan Ellison (a "classic" science fiction anthology upon which I gorged as a teen). 

From The Outlaw Bible:

Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs: Gonzo, performative account of sex. There’s a lot of butter in this pastry, but celebrations of carnal love were arguably revolutionary acts at the time, and Bangs unleashes the same flavor of psychedelic sweat that perfumes the urgent rock criticism for which his name is the name brand.

Complete by Patti Smith: An ecstatic evocation of erotic magic qua musical performance qua sex. Smith shuffles identity options like tarot cards; a womanly Walt Whitman containing mutually exclusive multitudes. I could feel John Knox and Jonathan Edwards screaming in my cerebrum as I read this lusty pagan invocation. Suffer, boys.

For more Patti Smith poetry, in convenient audio format, check out: http://www.ubu.com/sound/smith.html

L'anarchie flier by Patti Smith: A manifesto demanding that rock radio maintain its indie integrity and play the real music, man, the music of the people, instead of selling out to huge financial interests.

Decades after she wrote this, a morning show DJ I knew told me how fired up he was about the fresh talent he’d heard at a recent music festival.

“Are you gonna play them on your show?” I asked.

“Naw, we have to play off a list they send us,” he replied.

Then Clearchannel (now iheartmedia) bought his station and fired all the off-mike people a few weeks before Christmas. Sorry, Patti Smith, you lost.

Paradoxia by Lydia Lunch: Dirty grimy sexy adventures between a drug-loving klepto who may or may not be Lunch herself, and a Bad Boy who’s obviously trouble. Leather-jacket rough erotica. Hallway knife-humping. Outlaw indeed!

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk: Tyler Durden’s organization is even more of a Bro Terrorist Network than in the film; forget “You have to fight”; all recruits to Project Mayhem are ordered to kill someone. A big contrast with my fight club, where the first rule is have fun and be safe.

The second rule of my fight club is that you guys gotta eat all this pizza, cuz I’m not taking any home.

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller :The narrator accompanies a guy from India around Paris, including that most representative emblem of civilization, the brothel. A scatological misunderstanding (the Indian guy poops in the bidet) becomes the central motif of the narrator’s conversion to amoral nihilism. Miller’s case for this conversion is flimsy. It turns on raw speculation; what if the whole universe is just poop in a brothel bidet? To which one can respond, yeah, and what if it isn’t?) but I find his prose rich and seductive in a way his ideas aren’t.  

Ask Dr. Mueller by Cookie Mueller: Mueller costarred in the classic underground cinematic provocation Pink Flamingos, and this is a behind-the-scenes account that surprised me. The surprise is just how normal and level-headed everyone is; the characters in this film are grotesque monsters, but the performers are civilized and charming. The only unreasonable person in the story is Mueller’s mom, who tries to stop Mueller from letting her baby appear in the film. Happily, Mueller’s baby did make her screen debut as Noodles, a name which sadly does not appear in any baby name book. Such stardom may not be the most divine gift a mother can give, but it’s a start.

Pimp by Iceberg Slim: Slim shows us a night in a dangerous brothel, where a stew of lusts and yearnings keeps everybody swirling like bladed, bleeding tops. Frightening, but Slim’s prose is zesty and enthusiastic.

Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz: A young man is either getting raped by a delusional motormouth, or participating in full-immersion BDSM edgeplay. Wojnarowicz ain’t showing his hand, but he shows plenty else. Woj led a short, intense life and wasn’t afraid to take readers into the pains and pleasures he knew in his allotted time.

What did I do? by Larry Rivers: As a painter, Rivers deftly rethinks the genre of portraiture, and in this evidently autobiographical excerpt he delineates a time when he was trapped in alcohol, and an utterly worthless husband/father. Glimpses of his creative process whiz by, but it’s the human cost of alcoholism (and unhappy early marriages) that registers. Rivers sits in strip clubs wishing he was a better father to his kids. Compulsive wasted energy. Go check out his paintings; dunno if he shaped up as a family man, but at least in his art he was able to salvage some value from his life.

American Splendor Anthology by Harvey Pekar: Pekar wrote comics, and this one’s a squirmy account of a confrontational appearance on David Letterman. While his collaborations with underground cartoon master R. Crumb, who’s a virtuoso draftsman, brought Pekar to the world’s attention, he’s worked with a real grab-bag of artists, one of whom illuminates this anecdote, and the awkward figures in this comic are like monumental primitive sculptures snarling at each other.

Don Quixote by Kathy Acker: It’s never possible to tell how sincere Acker is being; her brand of faux-naif faux-confessional is endlessly slippery. So this rant about how the musician Prince should be the President of the United States is a tough one to pin down; taken straight, it’s as doltish a bit of neo-romantic populism as you could find. The lightest of editing could transform it into a pro-Trump editorial, which proves that its arguments are utterly invalid, but Acker’s real point may be an endorsement of Prince/Acker’s performative show-biz over the clammy pieties of the politicking class. RIP, Prince and Acker.

Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr.: Another account of substance-abusing street hustling. This time the protagonist is a pretty drunk woman who grifts a naive Navy boy. Naturally he falls in love with her, and she's not sure how best to strip-mine his wallet and break away clean. Low key prose, very different in manner from the hyperventilating expressionism of Requiem For a Dream, which was my only previous encounter with Selby.

Tin Pan Alley by Barney Rosset: This story rips the lid off depressing dive bars; it’s pretty straight-ahead prose, but if you ever feel the urge to hang out in a crummy bar strictly for the low-life atmosphere, you might prefer this lo-cal literary substitute. The single most interesting thing I found in it is the observation that the bar's low-grade Pan-European decor creates a nowhere/everywhere pocket dimension in Chicago; a pomo observation in a drably realist account.

An American Dream by Norman Mailer: A gorgon of an ex-wife hurts a man’s feelings, so he goes into a mystically sexual fugue state and strangles her to death. Seems to me that this little daydream crawled out of Mailer’s spank bank. The woman is portrayed with no surfeit of compassion; while representation does not equal as endorsement, there’s little evidence that Mailer was trying to raise awareness of domestic abuse. This smells more like revenge on an ex, although the prose has a practiced swagger that reminds us that Mailer was once a lauded Hemingway aspirant. He was also sufficiently prolific that the editors of this collection probably could have found a less repellent excerpt, but I guess that wouldn’t be very Outlaw of them. People who like compassionless portrayals of men hurting women will enjoy adding this story to their own personal spank banks.

For some reason I read the novel from which this thing is excerpted at a way too early age. I remember a lot of enthusiastic descriptions of rectal romance and the protagonist proving his manhood to another guy by getting drunk and balance-walking on a balcony railing. Norman Mailer! He's a Great Writer, kids.

From Best American Fiction of the 20th Century:

The Other Woman by Sherwood Anderson: A successful man is about to marry a wonderfully perfect girl, but is compelled to dally with a plain, earthy married woman who works at a newsstand. The subtle twist ending leaves me in agony for everyone involved. Anderson’s neurotic fiction always puts me in mind of David Lynch, although Douglas Sirk is probably a more direct cinematic descendant.

The Golden Honeymoon by Ring Lardner: A chatty, henpecked nonsophisticate takes his wife on a glamourless vacation and gets stuck with some boring companions. You might feel like you’re stuck with a bore yourself if you read this, but there’s a wit at work. Sometimes it’s the guy telling the story being witty, and sometimes it’s Lardner himself having fun at his protagonist’s expense. Once I gave up on trying to figure out why this was in an anthology with Best in the title I found it pleasant enough. It probably packed more punch before its sell-by date; now it feels like Dave Barry by way of Norman Rockwell, which isn't terrible, but.

Blood-Burning Moon by Jean Toomer: Now this is a lot more like it. A pretty young African-American woman is in love with two men; one a wealthy white guy who yearns for the days of slavery, and the other a black man with anger issues. It’s hard to see how this could go wrong, but guess what: it does. Toomer (a cult figure of the Harlem Renaissance) works a powerful spell; the entire night in this southern sugar-cane town is like a tightly strung guitar that resounds at the slightest movement. People are emotional pinballs coruscating though a vivid landscape where animals seem to understand what's happening better than humans do, until the end when an ofay mob becomes a dumb bitter beast performing a pagan blood sacrifice. Toomer understands the petulant chimp-brained resentment that energizes racism. Scary insights, gorgeous storytelling.

The Killers by Ernest Hemingway: A source text for hard-boiled noir storytelling, with the core of mystery and despair that makes Hemingway’s best “iceberg fiction” (where 90% of what’s going on is hidden beneath the waves) so compelling.

From Calling the Wind:

The Goophered Grapevine by Charles Chesnutt: Post-Civil War, a white guy considers buying an abandoned plantation (not far from where I live) but a former slave tries to scare him off with some tall tales about a curse on the property. The first time I read this, a few years back, I was too anxious about Chesnutt’s motivations for his whiteface performance (my understanding is that, at the time, he was in the closet to his readers about being black) to appreciate the cunning of the ex-slave’s storytelling. The second time through, I was able to see how the slave delicately mocks the way slavery commodifies human beings.

The Ingrate by Paul Laurence Dunbar: A slaveowner teaches a slave to read, write, and do basic math, all so that the slave can be of greater utility.

Then the slave escapes north and joins the Union Army. The vicious punchline is foreshadowed by the story’s title; it's a takedown of white supremist crybabyness, and, sadly, still timely.

Mary Elizabeth by Jessie Fauset: A middle-class, married woman quarrels with her husband, then listens with amused condescension to her maid’s uncultivated tales of love and woe. Condescension vanishes, though, as the maid reveals the depth of her losses. This motivates the wealthier woman to make up with her husband in a drippily sentimental climax, but the real interest of the story is the communication between women from different classes. The fact that both women are African-American packs a lot of the race/class/gender issues that still bedevil Americans into a tiny space.

From Dangerous Visions:

Evensong by Lester Del Ray: This is a skeleton in my closet. I read an edited-for-time rendition of this story as a high school Forensics team member in the Prose Reading event. It's exactly the kind of story a 16-year-old prog-rock fan would think is really deep. Basically, the protagonist is a galaxy-spanning refugee from hostile humans who are desperate to imprison him. Eventually the humans, who have conquored every nook and cranny of the universe, capture him. He protests that "I am God!" and his captor sneers "But I am Man." Wha'd I tell you? Super deep, dude.

Del Ray handles the thrilling Space Opera stuff like a pro. One might perceive a measure of thematic depth in the ambiguously pro/anti God/Human nature of the story. Del Ray's afterword declares himself to be on the side of Humanity outpacing barriers and boundaries, but don't dive into Intentional Fallacy just yet, dear readers: the humans in his story are arrogant jerks, and there's no indication that their conquoring of Creation is a net gain for anything except Humanity's collective self-admiration. Mostly, though, this story is E. E. "Doc" Smith after a few Composition courses.

Flies by Robert Silverberg: Aliens rescue and rebuild an injured spacefarer, then send him home to earth with one "improvement," an increased sensitivity to others' emotions. This sensitivity turns him into a sadistic junkie for other peoples' misery, so he seeks out all his exes and torments them horribly. Everything I said about that Norman Mailer bit pretty much pertains to this. The women are portrayed with an unsympathetic counter-feminist loathing. Also, there's a heapin' helpin' of extra sci-fi window dressing that ain't essential to the story; it's just there to keep the geeks comfortable. Still, if it did anything to break ground for Octavia Butler's similar but richer Kindred series (another story of aliens improving humans), I'm grateful for that.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

In Defense of Not Liking the Wonder Woman Movie Quite As Much As Everyone Else (While Remaining a Feminist)

Recently, I’ve disagreed with a friend of a friend about Richard Brody’s review of Wonder Woman, and, by extension, about the film itself. I thought I’d make my case here.

This, I believe, is the passage at the heart of our disagreement:

“Jenkins displays Diana’s fighting in two main forms: bullets come toward her in extreme slow motion, and she swats them away with her armor; and she makes martial-arts leaps toward her enemies, which get slowed down mid-leap before resuming their natural speed.

“In the film’s handful (an unusually scant handful) of warfare scenes, Jenkins doesn’t offer many variations on these two fighting modes; her modesty of style isn’t quite a modest style, nor one of conspicuously aestheticized restraint, like that of Jim Jarmusch or Sofia Coppola. Rather, it’s a style that displays neither its passion nor its reserve, and comes close to the realistic style of no style, as if in fear that a heightened or aestheticized one would ultimately contradict the point of the film and serve as a glorification of the very violence that it repudiates. It’s a superhero film with almost no excess.

“Even though Diana’s own battle skills are the peg for the movie’s action (and her fierce emergence from a trench to take on the Germans in no man’s land is one of the movie’s signal moments of uninhibited martial glory), it’s the fighting done by Steve and his human cohorts—warriors who lack Diana’s superhuman skills and, as a result, have to deploy a wide and varied range of human wiles—offers more cinematic fodder for Jenkins’s imagination. The movie’s one great action moment is a scene that brings together Steve’s tactical insight and Diana’s mighty abilities. The Fervent Five pursue Ludendorff to the Belgian village of Veld; there, they and the villagers come under siege from a German sniper who’s holed up in the bell tower of a church, and Steve comes up with a plan. Using a detached car door, he, Sammy, and Charlie provide Diana with a launching pad to catapult her up to the tower. The resulting mayhem is instantaneous and sublime; it’s also the movie’s most ecstatic and tightly packed symbolic moment, the one that illuminated the entire viewing experience, retroactively and through the rest of the action.”

I don’t want to quote the other party to our discussion without permission, but if I understand correctly, she believed that Brody:

1. Expresses, here, a preference for the men’s action that is rooted in misogyny, and

2. Overlooks the gloriousness and feminist affirmational power of Wonder Woman’s action scenes.

What I find in the quoted text is that Brody’s criticism of Diana’s action sequences is a formal one; too little tactical variety in the choreography for Brody’s liking. I’m not enough of an action enthusiast to break down, after a single viewing, the formal merits and demerits of the action scenes. Furthermore, I have no idea how good the men’s action scenes are, because I got bored and tuned out during the movie’s long midsection where it turns into a Band of Brothers story with Diana Prince as a garnish. Excuse me, I paid to see WONDER WOMAN, not these guys. So I dunno how robust the men’s action is.

But I also had formal problems with the action scenes that did highlight Wonder Woman, though I’ll acknowledge that my reasons are matters of subjective taste.

When I watch an action scene (and this goes to the heart of why I don’t generally dig superduper movies), I want to feel like the performers and fight/stunt choreographers worked overtime, while the special effects crew took the week off. I want the action to be centered on human bodies in motion.

Related: lately I’ve been fascinated by a silent short film by Maya Deren. (Go ahead, click on it, it’s barely longer than 2 minutes.)

Notice how Deren makes surprising choices about how she frames and edits the shots, yet always keeps the focus on the dancer’s body.

If I recall the Wonder Woman movie correctly, when Wonder Woman herself springs into action the postproduction team is laying on the Matrix bling and the old-school anime editing. This makes perfect sense; Wonder Woman is a demigoddess superheroine; why shouldn’t she trail clouds of shekinah glory? It’s just not my favorite flavor of action. I’m a stick in the mud about any movie that isn’t from the Wachowski Sisters using the cinematic vocabulary that Matrix brought to the game.

Wonder Woman’s final fight with Ares is particularly built on the methods of limited-animation anime, which I love… in anime. In live action I’m less delighted to see action cobbled together with Eisensteinian editing. If the movie is putatively live-action, I want the visceral physicality of bodies in motion. Action scenes are dance scenes, after all, and I prefer dance scenes where the choreographer deserves more credit than the editor.

Anyway, it seems to me that Brody’s objections are similar, though not identical, to mine; rooted in cinematic formalist concerns, not misogyny.

As for the feminist affirmational power of the film, I yield the floor.

(P.S. I did like the movie quite a bit)

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Outlaws and Inlaws, Part the First.

I'm reading The Best American Short Stories of the Century, Ed. John Updike and Katrina Kenison, and The Outlaw Bible of American Literature, Ed. Alan Kaufman, Neil Ortenberg, Barney Rosset. 

Here's what we got so far:

From Best American Short Stories:

Zelig, Benjamin Rosenblatt. 

A small-town Russian Jewish guy and his wife must uproot themselves from the only place they've ever known to go live in Big City USA and tend to their sickly son. Nothing to do with Woody Allen's movie of the same title. Zelig finds work but refuses to learn English or integrate, since he insists he'll be going back to the old village ASAP. Word comes down that the village is no place to be what with anti-semitic pogroms, but Zelig ain't trying to hear that. 

Zelig's basic issue is a reactionary clinging to the past in the teeth of time's forward hustle. I've been that guy, and I've also been the guy who's frustrated with that guy. Family and coworkers try to sort him out, but he's stupidly obstinate. The finale is tear-soaked in a way that would be completely unfashionable in the literary fiction of a generation later, but is evergreen in pop storytelling everywhere.

Little Selves, Mary Lerner. 

This is basically a time travel story, only it does without the science fictional apparatus of time machines, wormholes, etc., and relies simply on memory. Time travel stories are always about history and/or memory, and our traveler in this tale is a genteel woman at life's end. She seems to be out of touch, lost in senility, but she's reviewing her recollections with quiet, urgent intensity. There's a real sense of traveling and searching, as she constantly goes too far back in time, not quite finding the lost memory she's searching for, the one that will bring her life's trajectory into focus. Some of the memories are fantastical and (accidentally?) Freudian, but the key memory, once she discovers it, isn't about love; it's about unlocking her talents. Once she finds that crucial memory, she snaps out of her revery and reengages her family, doing memory-work with them, unspooling family history.

A Jury of Her Peers, Susan Glaspell.

A man has been murdered, probably by his wife. The law needs to find a motive in order to clinch the case, so the menfolk set about examining the house, looking for clues. They don't find any, because they are patriarchal nitwits, but their wives figure out exactly why this husband needed killing. Then they destroy the evidence. See if you aren't cheering them on by the finale. 

One lovely aspect of this story is the way the women, who barely know or trust each other, finesse their way to an understanding about what they percieve and what they believe needs to be done about it. Masterful storytelling from Susan Glaspell, who was a playwright. It shows in the subtle, cautious, inch-by-inch dialogue.

From The Outlaw Bible of American Literature, which consists mostly of bite-sized excerpts rather than full stories:

The Sexual Outlaw, John Rechy. 

This is about a Hollywood hustler, but you know what he really wants to be? A Hollywood hustler, that's what. A pagan lustiness infuses this cheerful tale that's almost a detective story, as our hero, like a detective, enters stranger's homes and figures out what their lives are about. Plenty of faded Tinseltown glamour to gawk at along with unlimited omnivorous sexual consent that's pretty much the opposite of my Calvinist antiflesh default settings. Off to a great start, Outlaw Bible!

The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros.

We only get a page from Ms. Cisneros, and while it's a sweet account of teenage unrequited yearning, I'm not sure how it qualifies as Outlaw. Judy Blume is racier, although this fragment is keenly aware of teenage sexual bargaining, and the cost of not joining the game (see above Re: Calvinist antiflesh).

Live From Death Row, Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Another one-page fragment. In this one, a man on death row can't touch his visiting daughter, to their mutual sorrow. Our own tough-on-crime security state is chastised, not for locking a criminal up, but for "securing" his weeping daughter from her father's touch. The prose pours on the melodramatics; the story is sorrowful enough for a more restrained treatment. The author was on death row when he wrote it, though, so he can be forgiven for having more urgency than delicacy.

Ballad of Easy Earl, Barry Gifford. 

A guy who's screwed up hits the road to escape town (or should that be Escape Town?); along the way, he remembers the sad story of a buddy who also screwed up. From the author of Wild at Heart, this story has sass and swagger, plus crime and the open road. Yum.

The Basketball Diaries, Jim Carroll. 

Some junkies drag themselves through the multiracial streets at dawn looking for an angry fix. Really gives you a sense of the grubby day-to-day of being very close to junky dead-endedness.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Horror Vs. Europe, Part Finale

This is the final installment of The Horror Vs. Europe smackdown in which I pit stories from the scareiffic horror anthologies Dark Forces (Edited by Kirby McCauley) and Best of Shadows (Ed. Charles L. Grant) against stories from Best European Fiction 2010 (Ed. Aleksandar Hemon).

The Silent Cradle by Leigh Kennedy Vs. Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

The Silent Cradle by Leigh Kennedy: It’s to Charles L. Grant’s credit that he ran so many feminist stories in his anthology. This one’s about a two-parent, two-child family that realizes it has a third, unseen child, somehow. All the manifestations of a child are there except for the physical presence of a child. The story proceeds to game out the logic of that premise, which is similar to the big secret at the heart of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, to a paradoxically sad conclusion. It does this well, but is a bit like a wind-up toy; once you see how it goes, there’s not much to do but watch it run its course. That sting in the tail resonates, though, even if one sees it coming. I’ve complained previously about genre fiction’s weakness for pointless gimcrack twist endings, but this one works because it’s more interesting as an endpoint than as a jumping-off point; added to which, it’s a strong thematic resolution.

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy: This is an extremely tantalizing excerpt from a novel that was shortlisted for the Booker prize. A woman who seems to be improvising her life, love- and otherwise, turns up at a vacation home, only there’s confusion about reservations and 2 families are already there. Things almost stay polite. Tensions and hostilities are just barely restrained. Someone’s going to have to leave.

Compare/contrast: Both stories involve an unexpected arrival who throws a family or two into confusion. The former plays out its odd logic in linear fashion, while the latter twists about and lets us feel the jerk of every curve.

Verdict: Kennedy’s story might have hit me more viscerally if its structuring near-absence was a cat instead of a child. I’ve checked Swimming Home out from the library.

Additional proof of Swimming Home’s worth: negative reviews from obvious dullards on Amazon. Yeah, yeah, smug elitism, boo hoo blubber sob, I’M A MONSTER.

Wish by Al Sarrantonio Vs. Ballad of Ann Bonny by Alasdair Gray

Wish by Al Sarrantonio: A child got a wish, so now it’s Christmas every day. Imagine every kitschy representation of secular Christmas reworked as a dystopian anime and you’re in the ballpark. Sarrantonio has written my favorite Ray Bradbury story of this whole review project, and that includes the one that was actually by Ray Bradbury.

Ballad of Ann Bonny by Alasdair Gray: This story is a nautical murder ballad in eccentric but highly readable verse. All the rhymes are interior, which, combined with differing line lengths, yields a drunken wave-tossed verse that suits this drunkard’s confession of nautical loves and hatreds. The material seems grounded in authentic folk sources, while the style is enlivened by modernist stylings.

Compare/contrast: Both stories draw on pre-20th century folk materials (Christmas kitsch, nautical ballads) for source material, and both involve terrible problems at high elevations (to say more would be spoilery for both). Wish is overtly fantastical, and delighted with its own cartoonish audacity (as was I); the latter is more subtly outlandish, and more genuinely sorrowful. It is about murder, after all.

Verdict: I endorse both. I wanna see the animated version of Wish, and hear the song setting of Ann Bonny.

The Spider Glass by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro Vs. Indigo's Mermaid by Penny Simpson

The Spider Glass by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro: Another retro club tale. This is my favorite of the batch. A desperate woman tries to rob, but is subsequently employed by, a mysterious lordly man who may, or may not, be a worthy employer/lover. But this gothic tale is mediated by the frame story, which plays smart games with the cozily chauvinistic norms of club tales; the usual tipsy, garrulous men become drunken, bitchy, sexist creeps. Yarbro seems half-fond of them, as one might be fond of naughty children or destructive pets, but her feminist critique of the genre’s assumptions makes this a lively text, even though it’s rather long and has made most of its points well before the end. (Yarbro has perhaps heard such complaints before; much of the story involves men complaining that the story is too long, and the storyteller struggling to keep control of his audience.)

Indigo's Mermaid by Penny Simpson. Here’s a suggestion for any film producers who wish they could do a Nicholas Sparks, but lack the money and connections to snag the option rights; give Penny Simpson a look. In this tale a bereaved artist father (his son was murdered in lurid fashion) confronts his own jealousy of his son’s accomplishments, and makes tearful peace with the late son’s bohemian girlfriend. If you can’t make a hit movie out of that, you best find a different career.

Compare/contrast: both stories proceed from men who are jerks, to men who aren’t. In Yarbro’s case she accomplishes this transition by introducing a guy who’s better than normal men (despite, or because, he is A VAMPIRE); Simpson follows one man who starts out bitter and cruel, but learns to Let Go and be nice to pretty girls. HOP ON IT, MOVIE PRODUCERS. Also, both stories are concerned with artistic work as a subject. Yarbro’s narrator luxuriates in the details of his story while struggling to pacify his quarrelsome audience. Simpson’s sculptor protagonist is constantly challenged by the crafted representations of both his son (whose sculptures pop up all over the place) and the young woman (who plays a mermaid in a shop window, and makes various attempts to explain her side of the story).

Verdict: I enjoyed spending time with Yarbro as she lobbed spitballs at Victorian Red Pill MRAs. Simpson’s story has serious commercial potential unlike this blog thank you and goodnight.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Horror Vs. Europe, Part 10

Sneakers by Marc Laidlaw Vs. Basilica in Lyon by David Albahari

Sneakers by Marc Laidlaw: A little boy is hassled by a wisecracking boogeyman who travels across the threshold of dreams and reality to torment kids in their beds. Sound familiar? If the story reads like a spec audition for some Nightmare on Elm Street franchise work, it has the pop-fiction virtue of briskness; Laidlaw's got storytelling skillz, though his lightly-sketched boogeyman is less surreal than pre-sequels Freddie. Instead of Elm Street, Laidlaw ended up writing video game materials for the Half-Life franchise and getting retweeted by Neil Gaiman, which is further than I've gotten in life, so mazel tov, Mr. Laidlaw. 

Basilica In Lyon by David Albahari: A young woman has a cruddy time of it hitching a ride to Lyon and getting hassled or deceived by everyone she meets. A Lynchian vibe pervades. Finally she solves her problems in metatextual Gordian Knot fashion by announcing to a crowd of supporting characters that they're free to abandon this track, since they're unbeholden to the story their "careless" storyteller has put them into.

Compare/contrast: Both stories play with the fuzzy boundary between reality and dream/fiction.

Verdict: Both were diverting, but felt like reiterations of other storytellers' more robust efforts.

The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands
 by Stephen King vs. Prompter by Peter Kristufek 

The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands by Stephen King: King's duplication of the old Club Tale style (in which the denizens of an old-school sexist men's club gather around the fireplace and relate strange tales) is clearly the product of having delved deep into the source material. King doesn't pastiche 19th century genre material as vibrantly as Gene Wolfe or Russell Kirk, but he doesn't shame himself either.  It's the second story I've read for this series of posts where a white westerner goes to the East and gets cursed (the first being Lindsay and the Red City Blues, which is more suspenseful). The narrator goes in search of the cursed man, and finds out that the indignities heaped upon the Victorian poor are as appalling as any hoodoo.

Prompter by Peter Kristufek: Robert Coover's spirit enriches this lip-smackingly cynical satire in which a rundown town pulls Potemkin Village shenanigans to bamboozle visiting pan-European VIPS. A dignitary unwillingly gives a dopey speech that the titular prompter feeds him, drop by drop. Kristufek skewers shallow civic-mindedness. It's an excerpt from a longer work, and feels more like a fragment than some other excerpts in Best European Fiction 2010.

Compare/Contrast: Both tales involve deceit and secrets in a vexed milieu of multicultural cross-pollination. In King's story the initial problem of a curse sets the narrator down a path which reveals to him the horror of poverty and stymied financial mobility. In Kristufek's sketchy but entertaining excerpt, Potemkin Village chicanery and knee-jerk provincial pride form a thin cover over civic dilapidation. Also, there's an element of heightened style to both stories: King pays tribute to an archaic mode, leaving his familiar modern locutions behind, while Kristufek maintains a sneering drollery.

Verdict: I suspect that first-generation club tales are probably more intriguing, if less concerned for the poor, than King's overlong pastiche. I'd like to read more of Kristufek's whimsically snotty civic protest, but I hope in long form he's able to infuse his gags with a bit more depth than is presented in this sliver of his work.

At the Bureau by Steve Rasnic Tem Vs. Do You Understand? by Andrej Blatnik

At the Bureau by Steve Rasnic Tem: An office worker is creeped out by a mysterious figure lurking outside his door, so he goes to lurk outside the figure's office door; it's a Moebius strip. Heavy, man. Such gamesmanship can resonate in the hands of, say, Edgar Allen Poe or John Barth, both of whom have played similar Doppelganger games with far greater richness. Editor Charles Grant writes a wayward rough-drafty introduction; I had more fun poking holes in it than in reading this remedial story.

Do You Understand?
 by Andrej Blatnik: Flash fictions about (mostly failing) relationships. Stuckness, hopelessness. Also , in one vignette, transphobia, although it's not clear whether transphobia is being enacted or mocked, since the transphobic character is cheating on his wife with a person of uncertain cis-ness, and his unease simulates, without being, guilt. 

Compare/contrast: Both stories involve conflicts with no likelihood of happy resolution.

Verdict: Tem's story is a clunker; you, dear reader, can come up with a more interesting doppelganger story in the time it would take me to find out which letter of the word "doppelganger" should have an umlaut. Blatnik suits my post-election gloom, but not my post-election need for agency and faith in human potential. And that's probably just how he likes it. 

Macintosh Willy
 by Ramsey Campbell Vs. Revelation on the Boulevard of Crime by Julian Rios

Macintosh Willy by Ramsey Campbell: Some wayward boys run afoul of a scary tramp; or is it the other way around? This is a story about being haunted: haunted by regret, haunted by fear, haunted by sexual failure. Also, being haunted by a dead tramp. 

Revelation on the Boulevard of Crime 
by Julian Rios: Deal with the Devil story meets Time Travel Paradox story, but not to the benefit of either. A certain density of historical detail adds texture for those who like density of historical detail.

Compare/Contrast: Both tales feature guys getting into long-term conundrums with creepy maybe-supernatural strangers. Campbell's story reads like a rueful memoir of misspent youth, while Rios' is more concerned with the literary trick of turning two thinly connected events (the taking of a photograph and the reprinting of that photograph in a book) into a predestination/doom situation.   

Verdict: It's not often that a story from the Horror side of this project trounces a story from the Euro side, but in this event I think Team Genre enjoys a clear victory. Ramsey Campbell is an artist of the sort that commercial horror fiction doesn't always deserve. His passion for language and his passion for people form a double helix.

Following the Way by Alan Ryan Vs. Noir in Five Parts and an Epilogue by Josep M Fonalleras

Following the Way
 by Alan Ryan: A young male narrator keeps getting recruited by his genial Jesuit instructor. Ryan's protagonist submits stories to The New Yorker and The Atlantic, and Ryan writes like someone who aspires to such markets; his well-manicured gentility and cultivated humility is clearly modeled on upmarket lit fic. SPOILER WARNING: Priests are all vampires. Oh Alan Ryan.

Reading stories like this has gotten me thinking about twist endings, and why most of them suk. Here's my rule of thumb: if you'd rather read a story that begins with that twist, the story is probably a dead loss. Wouldn't you rather read a story about vampire priests doing vampire/priest stuff, rather than a story about polite discussions with a priest that ends with the vampire reveal? Note that Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and The Ransom of Red Chief, two icons of twist ending excellence, pass my little test; they wouldn't be improved by beginning with the stings in their tails.

Noir in Five Parts and an Epilogue
 by Josep M Fonalleras: A guy hangs out in a brothel but mostly just makes awkward chitchat. Meanwhile, his ex researches a story by rolling with a (dirty foreign devil) truck driver who's running some horrifying contraband. What do these two narrative threads have to do with each other? Is it possible to rub up against the vilest crimes and remain untroubled? Dread of immigrants brings a regrettable touch of Lovecraft/Le Pen/Trump to the mix. Weird lingering questions and troubling clues mean you'll have to read this one twice. 

Compare/Contrast: Both stories circle around shocking revelations. One follows a familiar setup/punchline approach. The other staggers and layers its revelations, weaving horrors and banalities together in ways that reveal the secret crimes that are just outside the door if we only knew when to peek.

Verdict: Ryan's homogenized New Yorkerish style lacks the peripheral observations and sly wit of the real stuff, and his big reveal is a groaner. Fonalleras upset me and compelled me in equal measure. THAT is horror.

Next time: the final installment. *PHEW*

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Horror Vs. Europe, Part 9

Naples by Avram Davidson Vs. Didi by Michal Witkowski

Naples by Avram Davidson: I dunno what Naples did to deserve this treatment. The story is basically a guided tour of a terrible crappy rundown bad place which may or may not resemble the real Naples, but would have horrified the Naples Tourist Board, had this book been a best-seller. Then there's a supernatural sting in the tail which has little bearing on the rest of the story, and ought to have been the basis of its own tale. It feels like Davidson just wanted to character-assassinate a city, then slapped on a twist ending so he could sell it to the genre mags. 

BTW I haven't read much of Davidson's other work, but I have a lingering fondness for him because in high school I read aloud his much-anthologized story The Golem for Prose Reading competitions; it went down much more smoothly with judges than the Norton Anthology modernism I usually inflicted on them. Davidson's polished prose blends chatty mid-20th century "slick" writing with 19th century stylings that remind me, just a bit, of Gene Wolfe's more filigreed antiquarian approach in his Dark Forces installment.
Didi by Michal Witkowski: An extended excerpt from a longer work, this is an account of a teen trans streetwalker's life; adjectives like "gritty" fail to do justice. (There are only subtle hints that Didi is trans, but the author's note was more direct.) It's so deftly plotted, sympathetic, and incident-crammed that it manages to be entertaining despite, or because of, its horrifying verisimilitude. It's like drinking champagne made from subway mop water. 

Compare/Contrast: Both are tales of the naked, suppurating city. One feels like a whimsical hatchet job, the other like sympathetically researched reportage.

Verdict: I liked them both, but Didi is the one worth rereading for its sympathy-demanding portrait of down-and-out life. Naples felt like an amusing card trick with a muffed payoff. 

The Gorgon by Tanith Lee Vs. dona malva and senhor jose ferreiro by Valter Hugo Mae:

The Gorgon by Tanith Lee: A tourist swims to a small forested Grecian island despite cryptic warnings from the locals. There he encounters a sophisticated woman who wears a mask. Is she a Medusa? OR ARE WE?

This tale is prescient; a woman who hides her appearance and ought to be known for her knowledge and accomplishments is, nonetheless, known and judged only by her appearance. A tale for the Instagram age, way back in the 80s.

Lee requires no introduction for literary fantasy fans of a certain age, but I'll always regard her as the best Blake's Seven writer, admittedly not a high bar. She added romantic complications to the dying days of that space opera which the show both needed and squandered.

dona malva and senhor jose ferreiro by Valter Hugo Mae: (BTW the lower-case is the author's) Oh man, do you like haunted houses with bleeding walls? Do you like buggin'-out female hysteria? If not, buzz off. If yes, you need to check this story out. A shot of sawtooth horror with a spritz of magical realism.

Compare/contrast: A woman, viewed from a certain distance, has a rough time of it in both stories, more subtly in Tanith Lee's story.

Verdict: I want to read more from both authors.

Moving Night by Nancy Holder Vs. Three Hundred Cups by Cosmin Manolache:

Moving Night by Nancy Holder: A boy is terrified by the kinds of things that scare kids in the night, in the dark. But are this boy's fears vindicated? Reversals loop-de-loop in a concise, twisted shocker that recalls another horror classic, It's a Good Life. Sadly, the bathetic prose is much poorer than the structural cleverness. Imagine the dialogue in the dopiest flashback from the shoddiest serial killer movie. It's like that.

Three Hundred Cups by Cosmin Manolache: A visit to a history museum triggers a poetic rumination on Romanian history, then considers the cups cosmonauts used in space. The story turns into a poem, listing 300 metaphorical cups (that could be one: "The metaphorical cup") that the cosmonauts might have drunk, each one suggesting a lens through which one might perceive life afresh. And then the story slides into a gross misogynistic fantasy about impregnating a streetwalker. Yes, it's doing cunning metaphorical tricks, as the streetwalker is identified both with Russia and the cosmonauts' ship (her theoretical future fetuses are the cosmonauts, see, and...) but I found it awfully distasteful.

Compare/contrast: Both stories are kind of terrific and kind of crappy; clever, but undermined by something I find unacceptable. In Holder it's the prosecraft; in Manolache, his tasteless humor. Needless to say, terrible prose and gauche jokes are perfectly acceptable to many readers, so take my groans as you find them.

Verdict: Nancy Holder seems to have built a busy career writing genre and franchise fiction. I was sufficiently dazzled by her cleverness to consider checking in and seeing if she's refined her prose. I'm not looking for Nabokov here (clearly, or I wouldn't have made it this far into this ridiculous reading project). Manolache cast a gentle, oceanic spell over me, and then shattered that spell with his offhand misogyny. Nonetheless, I grudgingly recommend Three Hundred Cups. Manolache's narrative recalls Montaigne's essays, drifting along and offering a tool kit for looking at life from new angles. I guess I'm more of an aesthete than a moralist. The aforementioned Nabokov would be proud.

Jamie's Grave by Lisa Tuttle Vs. Friedmann Space by Victor Pelevin: 

Jamie's Grave by Lisa Tuttle: A single mom centers her life around her little boy, whom she adores. Lately, though, he's ditching her to go dig in the backyard and commune with a mysterious imaginary friend. Mom pines for the day when he was a cuddly, sweet-smelling baby. As is mandatory in all stories of this type, the imaginary friend isn't imaginary, and is SPOILER WARNING a babylike creature that smells and feels just like the boy did as an infant. In cuckoo's egg fashion, the creature replaces the boy in Mom's affections. 

Jamie's Grave is a clever use of an old narrative template to address issues of parenthood and misdirected love. It's a smart idea for a story, undermined by flavorless prose. Tuttle's account of a mother's thoughts and feelings for her child have heft, but there's not much imagination in her telling of it. Reading this story was a drag, but the payoff was as wise as the setup was dull. 

Harold Bloom cracked that anyone could retell Fall of the House of Usher better than Poe told it. I'm not cosigning that verdict, but it's an interesting way of looking at the validity of adaptation and retelling. In other words, Jamie's Grave could provide the basis for a crackling Twilight Zone episode, if and when they bring that back.

Friedmann Space by Victor Pelevin: Some Russian investigators discover that rich people are swallowed into a perceptual black hole that warps their view of the world in ways that no one can understand. The researchers use large sums of money to make people temporarily rich and study the results. This sly satire slips the scalpel into post-Communist Russian wealth while delivering absurdist twists. The ending complicates the social commentary (the researchers' methods are undermined by sloppiness, as happens in research more often than breathless science reporters like to let on) without blunting the satire.

Compare/contrast: Both stories take on big topics via an investigatory narrative. Both have a sting in the tail, although Tuttle's sting delivers the message, while Pelevin's is more of a rococo bonus.

Verdict: I've read 2 stories by Tuttle now, and while I respect her thoughtfulness, I'm bored by her prose. Apparently she's edited an Encyclopedia of Feminism, though, which I might check out. Pelevin and/or his translator keeps the prose lively, which you'd better do if you're going to write fiction about such potentially dry subjects.