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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

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Outlaws and Inlaws #18:Tales of Woe and Edgar Allen Poe

Shall we take a cook's tour of my latest reading? Oh yes, let's!

From Calling the Wind:

Soldiers by Ellease Southerland: A young man enlists for the Vietnam War so he can get that GI Bill and spare his mother the cost of college. She'd rather pay for college and be spared the loss of her son, but he's deaf to her tears. The tale is told in 4 pages of fragments, sometimes elegant, sometimes plainspoken, reflecting the young man's ability to code-switch (a teacher accuses him of plagiarizing a paper because it contains such advanced vocabulary, but the young man demonstrates that he knows the words, and shouldn't be evaluated purely on his casual conversational style).  He survives the war, but Southerland suggests how badly it's all going to work out for him. She gives us all the clues, and lets us figure out that his mother will die while he's away, and losing a hand is going to lead him into a morphine addiction. It's some of the deftest and loveliest storytelling I've enjoyed lately; as editor Charles Major dryly notes in Ms Southerland's bio note, "her satires and poems appear primarily in black periodicals."

Roselily by Alice Walker: A young African-American woman in a repressive small town marries a sophisticated Black Muslim guy from the big city, hoping he'll open her world up, but suspecting that he'll just replace one kind of repressiveness with another. I can't help wondering if Alan Moore read it once upon a time, because its clever framing device is reminiscent of the structuring gimmicks he would employ a decade later: each phrase from the "Speak now or forever hold your peace" portion of the marriage ceremony is paired with one of the bride's corresponding thoughts or memories in ironic juxtaposition. The tightness of the structure reinforces the bride's fear that she is bound, whichever way she goes in life, by gender and race in ways that will forever restrict her.

From Best American Short Stories:

Gesturing by John Updike: A marriage "consciously uncouples" so that both partners can spend more time with their lovers, but since they, with decades and children to their marriage's credit, know one another better than their lovers do, they tend to gravitate back to one another. We follow the man, who takes a lonely apartment overlooking a controversial new skyscraper that keeps dropping windowpanes. The man comes to think of the skyscraper as his lonely companion, a similarly promising yet disfunctional figure, and contemplates it often. Have you ever fixated upon some inanimate fixture of your life, and found layers of meaning and beauty in it that were part of some singular equation, you times the object of your contemplation? Updike renders just such a connection between the man and the building. His apartment's own windowpane is stable but has a nearly invisible message of love, "With this ring I thee wed," evidently scratched in the glass with a wedding ring by a previous tenant. It floats there tauntingly in the man's vision, flickering in and out of his awareness just as his relationships flicker in and out like uncertain candleflames.

The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick: A woman and her two daughters, one of them a baby, are marched into a Nazi concentration camp. The 3 of them must share a shawl to keep warm. That shawl's going to be called upon to serve many aching needs. 

Nazi cruelty creates death and suffering even when it doesn't actively try to kill; terrible conditions are enough to ruin lives, and the threat of repressive violence prevents a mother from openly responding to a child's death. Everyone knows the death camps were monsterous and awful, but Ozick forces us to consider the particulars with vivid emotional immediacy and intensity. She writes with such terse beauty that we have some aesthetic cushioning, which makes it possible, and even desirable, to follow her woeful narrative to its conclusion.

From Plays in One Act

Prodigal Son by Garrison Keillor: The Prairie Home Companion auteur retells Jesus's parable of the young man who abandons his family for a life of dissolution, then returns, expecting to be treated as he deserves, but receiving loving forgiveness instead. Keillor's retelling employs a whimsical anachronistic style that will be instantly familiar to his fans, and in a surprising last move, ends the story with a hilarious tantrum from the virtuous brother who did everything right and received only token appreciation, compared to the prodigal's celebratory banquet. Still, this play is punctuated by some of the worst doggerel song lyrics ever published by an editor of Halprin's stature.

She Talks to Beethoven by Adrienne Kennedy: An African-American woman is in Ghana during a time of political unrest. Her husband has been kidnapped, and she's dealing with it by interacting with her imaginary friend, the composer Beethoven. She's fascinated by him and his work. This fits snugly into her multicultural artistic interests; like Countee Cullen, she's enriched by Europe without being Eurocentric. Her reimagining of Beethoven's life, and the friendship the two of them might have, is counterpointed by radio broadcasts about her husband's predicament, and performances of African poetry and music. It's a very rich stew, and I suspect it would be terribly challenging to pull off a production. There's lots of potentially deadly exposition, and transitions from one layer of reality to another. I'd love to see a richly imagined and finely controlled production, but keeping a dramatic energy coursing through it would be quite a hill to climb.

From Interzone:

The Cabinet of Edgar Allen Poe by Angela Carter: Carter's famous blend of Gothic Postmodernism puts Poe's mother in the spotlight, a position she would find familiar, since, according to this narrative essay, she was a traveling stage actor. Carter considers the effect that a theatrical mother might have had on Poe's understanding of women, love, and reality. The switch from person to performance; the costumes, wigs and greasepaint rewriting one's appearance; the nursing mother abruptly exiting, stage right.

From The Outlaw Bible of American Literature:

Whoreson by Donald Goines: A streetwalker tutors her son, a teenage pimp aspirant, in the finer points of pimping. For example, never trust a woman, EVEN YOUR OWN MOM. Also, pimping your own mom has certain drawbacks. It can affect your social standing, and complicate familial relations. The story's written with a verve and directness that you will not find in this paragraph about it, so if you like stories about smart but woefully underprivileged people trying to make it on the street, you need to check out David Goines. I suspect some of the smarter gangsta rappers have highlighted copies of Goines' writing on their bookshelves. (He also wrote Never Die Alone, which I considered here.)

Shock Value by John Waters: The elder statesman of goony, cartoonish independent film spins (tall?) tales of his juvenile delinquency that will thrill anyone who has enjoyed his colorful, bratty movies. For someone like me this might as well be Conan the Barbarian-style wish-fulfillment adventure. The origins of The Filthiest People Alive start here!

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers: A narrator returns to his home town of Chicago, "ghosts in pocket," haunted by the cold and the distant death of his parents and all the weirdness that scrubs up against you when you return to the old hometown after the distance of years. 

I've experienced something like that, since I returned to my hometown of Signal Mountain recently, for the first time in the 21st century, but it was a different experience because it was beautiful on the old hiking trail, and my parents are, thankfully, alive.

Anyway, since the protagonist's parents left their bodies to science, he imagines confronting the doctor who oversaw science's use of them, demanding to know, in a most unscientific way, what secrets the surgery unlocked. Grief and childhood memories and self-mockery and fantasies of self-aggrandizement ruin this guy's trip. Intense, long, lustrous sentences enact, as well as relate, the agonized obsessiveness that bedevils this guy.

Monkey Girl by Beth Lisick: a short excerpt about a young woman who grasps onto Chinese horoscopes to craft some focused identity for herself (year of the naughty Monkey) and her current (clever but gross, unreliable, invasive Rat) boyfriend. Her dissatisfaction (she prefers pretty much any other animal of the set) finds no solace in this superstitious solution, though. Bawdy and anxious.

Dogeaters by Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn: A boy is held hostage by his Uncle, who pimps the boy out and uses a guard dog to keep him in place while Uncle's away. Inch by inch, the boy tests an escape plan while, in unadorned, informational language, contemplating the boundaries of his imprisonment. Caution: although the dog doesn't get eaten (the title probably references some slur on the boy's (and author's) Philippine heritage) it meets a similarly grisly end. Doglover that one may be, though, the boy's horrible predicament makes this murder understandable, and it's unlikely that he'll lose many readers sympathy.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn: The children of a pair of circus owners beg for familiar family stories, and Mom and Dad are happy to oblige. The stories are horrifying tales of abuse, but presented as beloved tales that fill parents and children with delight. Dunn's cult novel encases the most grotesque body horror in equally grotesque sentimental narrative forms. It's an ironic attack on the misuses of storytelling to justify historical horrors, unless it's a plea for making do with the imperfect family one's got. Or both. Word on the street was that Tim Burton wanted to film it; he probably would have turned it into quaint circus kitsch with all its fangs pulled and replaced with artfully decayed, bent and broken joke teeth.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Tolkien Vs. Lovecraft (Vs. The New Weird) Smackdown Supreme, Round #3

For those who came in late, this is a series in which we pit 2 leading lights of fantasy fiction against each other via their representatives in a pair of short story tribute anthologies. But a new challenger enters the ring, and it's The New Weird, edited by Jeff and Ann Vandermeer, an anthology celebrating fantasy which owes more to Mervyn Peake and British New Wave SF. Does this offer a more compelling vision of literary fantasy than do the shopworn legacies of JRR and HP?

Jousting for Tolkien, we have Robert Silverberg, with the story A Long Night's Vigil at the Temple.

In a distant time and place, the high priest of a temple questions his faith, but assumes that his religion (which centers around 3 gods who came to earth, then ascended back to the heavens) does people some good whether or not it's factual.

The temple is at least as ancient as the religion, and has buried floors that haven't been accessed in millennia. But one of the High Priest's cohorts (a custodian named Mericalis, resonant of America and miracles) discovers that would-be robbers have tried to tunnel into the temple's buried levels. Mericalis and the High Priest venture into these depths, and explore their way to a shocking discovery that you've probably already guessed. 

I'm all in for stories that explore the lost chambers of history in a simultaneously metaphorical and literal fashion, and Silverberg delivers it with the kind of suspenseful yet unhurried adventure that I've enjoyed ever since my first cave tour as a kid. His depiction of theological struggle is cogent but too close to contemporary therapy-speak for the setting. If you're going to propose a far-distant setting, then make it at least as unfamiliar as a trip to a country one's never visited. The priest could just as easily be a contemporary questioning Christian, and perhaps that's the point. 

He could also be a lifelong SF writer who doubts his legacy, a position Mr. Silverberg might understand.

The story ends with the priest discovering that his sense of mission as a clergyman is born anew from the discovery that his religion is built on a false narrative; with the founding myth upended, the faith's values become more essential, and the narrative can be rewritten to serve that end. This nicely complicates my rubric for twist endings: if I'd rather read a story which begins with the twist's premise, a twist ending story fails. O. Henry and Ambrose Beirce wrote famous examples of stories that pass this test; a lot of SF tales, given the genre's addiction to cheap twist endings, fail it. Long Night's Vigil occupies a nice in-between point: I though the twist of the priest's rekindled faith paid off, and I'd read a sequel that followed him from there.

Representing H. P. Lovecraft, we got Basil Copper with the story Shaft Number 247.

I've never heard of Mr. Copper, but apparently he published dozens of novels, a fact which should give any aspiring author hope; if he can make it, surely you can too.

Anyway, this story is set in an underground city that was built as a refuge for humanity, because the aboveground world is uninhabitable. 

OR IS IT?!?!?!

We aren't given any backstory; that's just how it is. But something may be trying to come in from above, or lure humans out.

All the characters are men, and like The Wind in the Willows, the story is so homosocial that it's ambiguously homosexual. Also, it seems to be a first draft; Copper's grammar is all over the place.

"He glanced incuriously at the man now, dapper and self-confident, his dark hair bent over the panel opposite, listening to Wainewright's handing-over report. Then he had adjusted the headphones and was sliding into the padded seat."

Which he is he? Is it the subject or the object who is dapper and self-confident? How does hair bend over a panel; is that supposed to mean that his dark-haired head is bending over the panel? Why do we switch from past tense to past perfect? Only Basil knows for sure.

Eventually I found myself giving in to the weird outsider art vibe of Copper's story, which, like much outsider art, is enigmatic in ways which may or may not be deliberate; the contours of the story may follow the contours of the author's reality tunnel in unplanned, uncrafted ways. The characters talk to each other, but have a near-autistic disconnect, and I can't tell if that's deliberate on the narrator's part, or an accidental byproduct. Copper's sloppy writing doesn't inspire much confidence that anything he does is deliberate or under his control. Nonetheless, the beguiling, almost psychedelic ending has an uncanny effect that I'm still puzzling over, weeks after reading it. 

The protagonist, inspired by a collegue's departure from this mysterious underground city, tries to escape. This turns into a fanciful, hallucinatory vision of heavenly delight, and the only appearance of femininity in the story, as a happy girl welcomes him to an Edenic paradise. But earlier in the story we've been given enough ominous yet uncertain hints about what may be happening outside to suggest that this vision is, indeed, only a hallucination, and perhaps a trap. Copper doesn't tip his hand, and an enigmatic quality hangs over the story, like a sphinx made out of old mittens.

And now, representing The New Weird, it's M. John Harrison with The Luck in the Head.

In this story, a man in a Gormenghastly city suffers from upsetting dreams and visions. A masked woman promises that he can be free of these visions... if he will assassinate Mammy Vooley, the peculiar leader of the city (who's not at all a grotesque amalgam of The Queen Mum and Maggie Thatcher. Not at all). 

I've read this story several times, and it never quite clicked with me. This time I fell in love with it, and the reason is that I read it in a noisy break room. With all the distractions, I was compelled to read each sentence again and again until I was sure I'd parsed it. That's the best way to handle Harrison, at least for me. On previous readings I'd been more casual about comprehending Harrison's willfully cryptic prose, which is no way to unlock the treasure within.

Harrison's approach differs from Silverberg's, who, in the tradition of popular writers, makes everything very clear and easily digestible. Not that Silverberg's work isn't sophisticated, but he doesn't want the reader to struggle with the basics of what's happening in his story. Harrison makes you work for every bit of comprehension; his prose tends toward the riddle, the koan. The total effect, though, conveys a story world that can't exist in the environment of straightforward prose; Harrison owes more to the modernist poets than to the fireside storytellers.

Harrison's peculiarities and ambiguities also differ from those of Copper, because it's abundantly clear that Harrison is in charge of his work, while Copper's work could very well be the product of an A.I. Although, in the photos I found online, Copper looks like Nabokov's stand-in, it's Harrison who is closer to the idiosyncratically precise and irritably demanding, yet magnificently rewarding, tradition of Nabokov.

The Verdict!

Like Copper, Harrison creates a peculiar, evasive, distant, enigmatic world which lingers. Like Silverberg, Harrison's Cleanth Brooksian urns are well wrought. Unlike Copper, Harrison doesn't write like a drunk teenager, and unlike Silverberg, Harrison tells a story about a far-distant land that actually feels foreign. Harrison's story also promises the most return on rereadings; Silverberg's story rolls out all its rewards on a first reading, and Basil's too clunky a craftsperson to make a return visit seem appetizing. For this reader, the choice is obvious.

If one insists on restricting the competition to the original binary terms, though, I believe that once again, Team Tolkien triumphs, on points rather than by a knockout. 

Next time I'll be reading stories by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, Poppy Z. Brite, and Clive Barker, so anyone who's actually still reading this will wanna check that out.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Outlaws & Inlaws #17; TERF Nazis Must Die

Here at But Don't Try To Touch Me headquarters we have been overwhelmed by a variety of behind-the-scenes endeavors, but that hasn't stopped us from selecting a volume to take the place of Dangerous Visions, and that volume is Interzone, a collection of science fiction stories from a challenging British journal of the 80s. One story in, it's batting (with a cricket bat) a lot higher than Dangerous Visions did.

From Outlaw Bible of American Literature:

Diary of an Emotional Idiot by Maggie Estep: Our narrator, the receptionist at a S&M dungeon, tells us all about the desperate characters in her apartment building. There's a loudly foulmouthed single mom, yelling profanity at her equally foulmouthed kids; a forlorn stripper who can't believe the losers she dances for; a couple of speed freaks to class the place up; and a cheerful group of Japanese exchange students who enjoy the cavalcade of misbehavior as much as I do. Broke urban desperate crazy Americana. This is like candy to me. 

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: Trigger warning for suicidal ideation.  Two women in a mental hospital try to bond over their common interest in suicide. Plath inspired generations of confessional writers, but she didn't merely spill her guts; she used her imagination to capture the strangeness of things. In this excerpt, the protagonist examines a succession of newspaper photographs, and David Lynch came inexorably to this reader's mind: "A dark, midnight picture of about a dozen moon-faced people in a wood. I thought the people at the end of the row looked queer and unusually short until I realized they were not people, but dogs."

Requiem For a Dream by Hubert Selby, Jr.: A TV obsessive named Sara Goldfarb gets invited to be a guest on a TV show. The sleazy pitchman who calls her up peddles a grotesque religion of fame, and Ms. Goldfarb's joy calls to mind the fervour for cheezy fame that fuels so much of our media now. One distinction is that Ms. Goldfarb never expected to gain such fame, while today the people who attend to the famous are often people who aspire, not always unrealistically, to join their ranks. Like the film version, it's as subtle as a fork in the eye, but there's some ambiguity about how much compassion the narrator has for poor Ms. Goldfarb, who gets mocked, but also inspires sorrowful sympathy.

 The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America by Michelle Tea: A young woman with abuse in her past and prostitution in her immediate future takes a respite in a desert town. She describes the double helix of beauty and threat which makes the desert landscape so tantalizing, yet so stable, an ironic oasis in her troubled life. A pensive, yet intense, saturated account of the rest one can find in between the bad passages of life.

In the City of Sleep by Wanda Coleman: During the Vietnam War, a woman gets a Dear Jane letter from her soldier fiance in which he admits to having a Vietnamese girlfriend, and "offers" his hometown sweetheart the freedom to find love elsewhere, since he doesn't want to be a "stumbling block" to her. The idea that their sweet love might be considered a stumbling block distresses her more than the infidelity does, and she takes refuge in sleeping all the time. When she does have to be awake, she processes and reprocesses the damaging assumptions her man unloaded in the letter; it's obvious that he was trying to let her down easy, but he was completely stupid about it (imagine!). As frail and becalmed as she may seem, there's the suggestion that her slumber and obsessive dissection of the letter are necessary bridges to the next phase of her life.

Complete by Patti Smith: Her 3rd brief appearance in this anthology. Smith remembers chafing against 50s Cold War culture, and finding meaning in the Dali Lama. Then Sri Lanka got conquered by China, and Smith was dumbfounded that no one around her seemed to care.

A Different Kind of Intimacy by Karen Finley: A familiarity with Finley's work is probably a prerequisite for reading this autobiographical statement. Finley was one of the National Endowment for the Arts grant recipients whose work so horrified Jesse Helms, and if you check out recordings of the work she was doing in the 80s, you'll understand why. Her monologues are like the Aristocrats joke played straight, with cruelty and sexual toxicity that might make William Burroughs leave the room. I've listened to about an hour of her performances from the time, and it left me wondering if she was... okay. In light of that, Different Kind of Intimacy is reassuring.  Finley presents herself as the product of a loving family that was troubled by racism (her mother was a mixed-race beauty, and her "exotic" appearance did her few favors in a white-bread town) and suicide. "My father's death gave me passion, an emotional indicator toward which to push the content of my work. It compelled me to take the unanswered grief, the terrible sadness that I lived with, and throw it at the world." Boy did it ever.

From Plays in One Act:

Am I Blue by Beth Henley: Henley is best known for her play Crimes of the Heart, but I am of the minority opinion that each of her plays is a treasure, and that she's sadly underappreciated. This one-act follows a sad frat boy (who's really not frat material, but doesn't know what kind of material he is) on a New Orleans "pleasure" trip, where an odd, whimsical, lonely girl shows up and takes charge of him. It might not have aged well given our collective impatience with Manic Pixy Dream Girl characters, but Henley's women don't exist only to help men; the girl's extroverted loneliness is a match for the boy's introverted loneliness; she tries to help them both. It's a bit like Tennessee Williams in a mellow, non-experimental mood, and has some wry observations about the weird gendered cultural expectations against which boys and girls must forever swim upstream.

Our Man in Madras by Gert Hofmann: A man in an office telephones a salesman in a troubled nation and tries to guide him through the process of maximizing profits in a war zone. The satire ain't subtle. Boss wants the salesman to keep on task even when dying from a direct hit. Some corporations certainly do try to stripmine us this completely, but they put enough layers between people to ensure that people don't have to enact such psychopathies directly. It's like they learned all the wrong lessons from the Milgram experiment; how to weaponize human willingness to passionlessly hurt one another in order to maximize profits. Same-day shipping available!

From Calling the Wind:


The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara: Bratty children from the projects just want to clown around and indulge themselves, but a sharp woman in their neighborhood insists that they gather with her for some summertime schooling. The kids rebel against nonrequired class time, so she takes them to the shops where the rich folk buy expensive treats. The kids learn, all right. 

The thesis is an awakening to economic inequality, but Bambara is a comic writer, and her brats are as vulgar and carnivalesque as any real brats you might have met or been. Their hard education in what it means to discover you're excluded from the upper echelons of prosperity squelches all that energy and vigor for easy pleasures; we are not assured that the childrens' bitter new knowledge will lead them to any happy ending.

The Story of a Scar by James Alan McPherson: In a doctor's waiting room, a man asks a woman intrusive questions about how she got that scar. She scolds him for his rudeness, but tells the story. It's a love triangle between her, a proud, bookish gentleman, and a sexy bad boy. Halfway through the story, the man in the waiting room thinks he's got it figured out, but she douses his priggish mansplaining and reveals something my younger self needed to understand; sometimes bad boys are good men, and sophisticates are easily wounded, and wounding, solipsists.

From Best American Short Stories:

Verona: A Young Woman Speaks by Harold Brodkey: A young woman remembers European family vacation in which her father tries to delight her with wonderful experiences. The narrator has a rhapsodic, romantic aesthetic, but clear-eyed observations on her parents' efforts to make everything be as enriching as possible Father is more attentive to his daughter than to his wife, and the wife's revenge, whether or not it is intended as such, is to forge a more meaningful relationship with the girl than the father can, by sharing the sublime with her. The sublime upstages the delightful; Brodkey's talespinning has elements of both.

A Silver Dish by Saul Bellow: We plunge into a nonlinear family history, rich with detail and incident. The center of the story's gravity is the relationship between a scuzzball con man and his son, who can't find his place between Dad's low-grade criminality and Mom's pious devotion to Christian righteousness. Dad tries to exploit his son's wholesome connections for selfish gain, while the son tries to keep everyone happy. Will father corrupt son? Will the son keep any, much less all, of his relationships going on a healthy basis? The telling unspools slowly, but Bellow creates a whole world of immigrant strategies for fitting in to a new homeland (including heartfelt religious conversion, and grifting).

From Interzone, Edited by John Clute, Colin Greenland and David Pringle: 

Oh Happy Day! by Geoff Ryman: Radical TERF antisex feminists have taken over the world, and they're herding almost everyone into death camps, said camps being attended by the gay male auxiliary. The story is entirely set in one of those camps, where an attractive new recruit, who may be dissembling about his sexuality, and is the only black man on the camp's staff, carefully makes the case that people matter more than inhumane Isms. 

Obviously this isn't a plausible scenario, and in the wrong hands would be a ludicrous anti-feminist/anti-gay screed. Ryman, who is far from anti-feminist or anti-gay, is wise in the ways of SF's ability to use outlandish premises to cast familiar subjects in fresh, revealing, light. He's also spent a lot of time in Cambodia, studying the way Pol Pot tried to remake the world at the expense of everyone and everything, which allows Ryman to render a human drama in a plausibly textured death camp setting. By imagining a world in which the priggish edge of '80s vanguard gender theory achieves absolute power, and corresponding absolute corruption, he critiques the defensive absolutism that can breed amongst the forsaken and burst out in ugly ways once the forsaken gain power. It's gripping and horrifying (Big trigger warnings for sexual abuse, murder, cruelty) but glitters with artful phrasing and keen-eyed characterization. An authentic Dangerous Vision, with Harlan Ellison nowhere in sight.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Tolkien Vs. Lovecraft Smackdown Supreme, 2nd Round

Once more we try to ascertain which fan-favorite writer is greater, not by reading their work (too easy, too obvious!), but by reading tribute anthologies.

Playing for Lovecraft, we have Pickman's Modem by Lawrence Watt-Evans.

It's the 90s, internet access means dial-up, and the narrator notices that Howard Pickman, a lovably pugnacious and semi-literate message-board member, has acquired a newly sophisticated, if antiquarian, prose style. Pickman has a new modem of uncertain origin, and it appears to be rewriting his online interactions, casting Pickman in a more loquacious, but also foul-minded, mode. He's winning flame wars (is that phrase is still in use? This Gen X'er has no clue) with hair-raising insults that the narrator alludes to but, tastefully, does not detail. Just as Lovecraft shied away from describing the structuring terrors of his tales, Watt-Evans draws a curtain over the foulness which this modem's version of Grammerly imposes on Pickman's self-presentation.

The story makes me nostalgic for a time when this whole internet thing was thrillingly new and mysterious. People were just beginning to suspect the risks of being extremely online, and Watt-Evans uses fantasy to demonstrate the way the internet changes how we interact with the outside world.

On the other hand, having established this premise of a sinister internet agent twisting your words and presentation, the story's payoff is a bit flat. Pickman unplugs the modem but it continues to make calls to someone, then Pickman's last online posts are gibberish that will be familiar to anyone versed in Lovecraft, then Pickman was never seen again; stay off the internet, kids!

And in this corner, playing for Team Tolkien, Terry (Diskworld) Pratchett, gone too soon, presents Troll Bridge:

Cohen the barbarian, an elderly but still spry hero, guides his wisecracking horse to a bridge that may have a troll under it; the hero always wanted to prove his mettle against a troll, and is only just now getting around to it. It turns out that a family of trolls lives under this bridge, and the troll-man of the bridge-house is deeply honored to do battle against a hero of Cohen's stature. His wife, though, has other ideas. Her brothers have gotten out of traditional troll businesses and done very well for themselves in other lines of work that don't involve killing or dying; she wishes her husband would stop living in the past (the whole troll bridge thing is yesterday's papers) and make a proper living. Rather than battle, Cohen and the troll rhapsodize about heritage and keeping traditions alive. Class consciousness and elegiac Downton Abbey-style heritage nostalgia get an affectionate skewering, and all ends peacefully.

There's something very British about using fantasy races to address class, where an American would use them to talk about race. When I was in college I used to loiter in my English professors' offices and talk until they threw me out about how C. S. Lewis was totally right about everything (I no longer hold this view), and one of them inveighed against Lewis for racism. My professor believed that the Dufflepuds, a race of obsequiously dull-witted folk in Lewis's Voyage of the Dawn Treader, were a colonialist caricature of native peoples. I believed, and still do, that they were a snobbish caricature of working-class Brits. 

ANYWAY! 

Both stories are comic in tone, and use fantastical tropes to engage real-world themes (the life-altering dangers of the internet, the fading of Britain's reassuring yet stifling class structure). Watt-Evan's story is charming, but the conclusion is more a petering out than an enrichment. Prachett's story has the witty dialogue for which he's renowned, but also has passages of pellucid beauty. As a romantic hymnist of the natural world, he has perhaps not received his due. And he digs into his theme with particular insight; Watt-Evans explores his subject in a more glancing fashion (as, admittedly, I do) but in his defense, his topic was brand new, while British culture has been processing the end of empire for generations, giving Prachett a head start.

Verdict: Watt-Evan's story is prescient, modestly, and he writes with a warm literacy and unforced comic sensibility that eludes most would-be comic fantastical writers. On the other hand, Pratchett's story was the first entry in the Tolkien Vs. Lovecraft Smackdown that filled me with admiration and gratitude. (There's a part of me that's horrified that I'm stooping to affective fallacy, but I think that gratitude is earned by the story's finely wrought wit and attention to life. Pratchett was no idle daydreamer, but he transmuted his awareness of life into finely wrought fantasy.)

Team Tolkien is 2-0. Team Lovecraft needs to get a rally going.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Outlaws and Inlaws # 16 Featuring Manager's Doorbuster Dangerous Visions Inventory Liquidation-- all dangerous visions must go!

From Dangerous Visions:

Test to Destruction by Keith Laumer: If you think Science Fiction is greasy kid's stuff, Laumer isn't here to argue with you; he's here to roller skate out to your car with a heapin' platter of greasy kid's stuff. This is a supersized serving of desperate escapes, breathless chases, heartstopping leaps, and deathfacing confrontations. Some stories give you alien invaders; others give you human villains who say "You fool!" to their henchmen. Laumer gives you both in one story; what a value! And he delivers it all with practiced cliffhanger craft with no time wasted on fripperies that might blunt the freerunning forward momentum. Through it all our hero, a noble political revolutionary, wins the day and conquers both aliens and fascists.  If you like this kind of thing, rejoice! Laumer wrote a slew of books, just waiting for you.

There's a twist ending I didn't see coming, but mostly because I underrated the story as I was reading it. SF is loaded with cornball ubermensch power fantasies that embrace, rather than question, the nasty side of that equation. This story, to my condescending surprise, chose to question. Having granted his protagonist absolute power, Laumer shows the absolutely corrupted result. You fools!

Carcinoma Angels by Norman Spinrad: Another account of an ubermensch gone bad. This time a Renaissance man who's a dab hand at anything he tries achieves one victory after another. Spinrad narrates the protagonist's biography with plausible-sounding step-by-step developments and engrossing long-joke structure. After winning it all, our hero gets cancer, and uses a cocktail of psychedelic drugs (it's the 60s, after all) to gaze within and face the enemy on the internal battlefield.

Turns out that if you journey too far within... you may never come out, man. Spinrad presents a sympathetic but fairly conservative critique of transcendental aspirations.

Auto-Da-Fe by Roger Zelazny: A matador faces down a succession of self-driving cars instead of bulls. Zelazny, best known for his Nine Princes in Amber adventure series, delivers on this with all the action and ironic romanticism the premise promises. His prose glistens with pulpy poetry, enriched with more highbrow and formalist literary stylings on an as-needed basis, then pulls out a finale that isn't exactly a twist ending; more like a rueful development. Non-human life is vanishingly rare now; matadors don't face down cars because that's preferable to bulls, but because there may be no bulls left. Ellison's comparison of Zelazny to Nabokov is barking mad, but Zelazny could turn a phrase more vividly and deftly than most SF scribes.

Aye, and Gomorrah by Samuel R. Delany: In his introduction to this story, editor and compulsive blatherer Harlan Ellison asserts that Delany is a real man's man, not some "pathetic little homosexual." Well, Delany is anything but pathetic or little, and 2 out of 3 ain't bad. Perhaps Ellison's slurring was a defensive reaction to the story's subject matter, which is cruising for sex. 

Delany rolls this out more subtly than I'm about to, but in the future, some people become Spacers, people who do the blue-collar work of maintaining space stations, etc. They are bodily modified to withstand the extreme conditions of space, and can, it is suggested, take off and land from anywhere, at anytime, but beneath their clothes is some "loose meat" which is an inevitable aspect of the surgical alterations. They are neither male nor female after the procedure, but they are erotically irresistible to some melancholy admirers. 

Spacer work isn't particularly well paid, and many Spacers pick up extra money by turning tricks. Spacers serve as an objective correlative for real-life sexual outsiders, and while Delany was married (to Marilyn Hacker, one of my favorite poets, who shares Delany's devotion to specific and carefully articulated imagistic detail) he cruised for male sexual partners, and has since written and spoken about this with a Rechy-like lack of shame. 

And with that, we bid farewell to Dangerous Visions. One area in which both Ellison and I have been remiss is articulating how each of the stories in this grab-bag is dangerous; after all, nothing is dangerous in the abstract. It's dangerous to people, things or ideas. My least favorite stories in this anthology think they pose a threat to one thing, but are actually only dangerous to something else; for example, Ersatz by Henry Slezar (discussed here) thinks it's dangerous to the military-industrial complex, but it's really only dangerous to trans people. Delany and Poul Anderson strike depth-charge blows for LGBT, and Ellison wriggles with titillated distress in his intros to their stories. In Dangerous Visions, reactionary dangers blare their vuvuzelas and wear their MAGA hats, while more progressive strains must tiptoe their dangers across the border.


From The Outlaw Bible of American Literature:

Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy: Speaking of cruising, in this excerpt from the novel that inspired the famous movie (Midnight Cowboy, not Cruising), a handsome young man tries to scrounge a living in NYC after finding that women don't wanna pay guys for sex all that much. He hooks up with Ratso Rizzo, a long-time scrounger and survivor, and they try to find a payday wherever they can. We also learn how Rizzo ended up on the streets, and stare directly into his loneliness. Friendships between people who end up together because they don't have a lot of options is a subject I can understand, and Herlihy understands it as well.


Black Fire by Nelson Peery: A band of African-American hobos gotta handle some problems. Like hunger, health care, shelter? Well, probably, but in this excerpt the problems come in the form of dudes trying to kill you, including a lawman who revels in using his position of authority to murder hobos, especially black ones. I'm not clowning when I say that black hobo lives matter, and that blue lives matter as long as they're on the side of right, but these hobos give this cop what he deserves in a moving-train chase straight out of the movies.


From Plays in One Act:

The Bay at Nice by David Hare: In Soviet Russia, Valentina, a grand dame who once studied with Matisse, is called upon by a museum to authenticate a possible Matisse canvas. The experts are divided on its authenticity, and hope that her more personal insight will crack the case. Meanwhile, her daughter Sophia implores her for help getting a divorce from her ambitious husband so she can marry a sweetly nonthreatening lover. Valentina opposes the divorce with the conservatism of someone who was wild in her youth, turned from freedom to responsibility, and now can't bear to see anyone make, or own, the mistakes of youth and freedom for themselves. Hare is known for loving female characters who are almost too spiky and difficult to love, and Sophia loves her mother with the love of someone who knows from long experience how to handle such a tough old broken-winged bird. Another play I'd love to see performed, and performed properly.

Protest by Vaclav Havel (tr. Vera Blackwell): A soft-spoken revolutionary artist visits an old friend who is now a prominent TV broadcaster. The broadcaster privately laments the authoritarian government, and tacitly sides with the revolutionaries; but will he sign a petition and put his good standing on the line? A case of conscience for our broadcasting friend, who demonstrates the high-minded rationalizations people use to take the easy way out and still tell themselves they're choosing the path of greater valor. His cowardice should look familiar to a lot of Republican politicos who currently lack the nerve to publicly oppose President Dumber Tony Soprano, but doubtless Havel was skewering an old friend or two from Czechoslovakia's communist days.


From Calling the Wind:

The Lookout by Cyrus Colter: A socially ambitious woman can't help but stake out a party she hasn't been invited to. A parade of invited guests in their fine clothes pass by, and our heroine ruminates miserably on the profitable marriages they made, while her husband comes home from his unimpressive job to blog about short stories watch TV and fall asleep. Her bitter, detail-oriented observations on the extremely narrow social ladder for mid-century black women is a feminist indictment.

A Long Day in November by Ernest J. Gaines: This longer story begins as a portrait of the author (perhaps) as an anxious little boy. His parents split up and the boy carries the resulting displacement and anxiety to school. The child-centered gloom takes a sudden hairpin turn, though, when his dad picks him up at school and begins a quest to win his wife back. This involves running a gauntlet of angry old women who torment dad but also offer the wisdom he needs to remake his marriage. Poor dumb dad needs all the help he can get, and deserves all the tongue-lashings that he does get. The escalating abuse dad takes reminds me of classic slapstick comedy. All ends well, as the husband learns he'll have to sacrifice his bachelor-style freedoms to keep his wife at home. A terrific comic story spiced with sorrows. Far funnier and weightier than any of the whimsical joke stories that pop up in Dangerous Visions.


From The Best American Short Stories of the 20th Century: 

How to Win by Rosellen Brown: A We Need To Talk About Kevin precursor. A mom struggles to raise a nearly impossible little boy who smashes everything in his path and drives everyone nuts. As in Kevin, Mom narrates, and is, perhaps, unreliable. Is her kid really so bad, or does she just not know how to handle him? The main distinction between the moms of the two stories is that this mom finds her way through all the agony to empathize with her kid and love him with all his faults. It's a frank, unsentimental confession about regretting parenthood; the kind of thing that makes me glad I stuck with cats.

Roses, Rhododendron by Alice Adams: I loved this one. The narrator's mother asks an Ouija board what to do about her failing marriage, and the board says to ditch the husband, take her teen daughter, and move south. Mom trusts the board, and her daughter narrates treasured memories of the time in North Carolina (hey, that's where I live!). She meets an elegant, literate friend, with intriguing, calm parents (so different from her agitated mom!) and practically moves in. The girls bicycle around the wooded town, suspended in greenery and aspirational book talk, while their parents struggle to get their own lives together. The narrator's wise reflections and reinterpretations of her childhood perceptions makes this memory piece far more than a nostalgic reverie, and the way she brings the past's ambiguities into focus demonstrates historical awareness on a personal scale.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Tolkien Versus Lovecraft Smackdown Supreme, Round One

There's no debate that both J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and H. P. Lovecraft, author of The Call of Cthulhu and probably some other things, are monumental figures in 20th Century dork fiction, and I celebrate them both for that.

But which of these professional daydreamers is GREATER? 

Clearly, there is only one way to settle this question once and for all. 

That way is to compare and contrast these 2 books: 

I realize this is a terrible photo, despite a handsome cat; let's just move on.




After The King, Ed. Martin H. Greenburg, and Cthulhu 2000, Ed. Jim Turner.

From time to time I'll be dipping into these mighty texts to ascertain which festschrift makes the stronger case for its chosen auteur.

Let us begin this momentous task.

Representing J. R. R. Tolkien, Samuel R Donaldson presents Reave the Just (Trigger Warning: Rape and abuse).

In this story Jillet, an affable town fool, falls in love with a beautiful and wealthy widow, little knowing that she is being held prisoner in her own home by an abusive rival suitor. As part of a desperate multi-phase wooing scheme, Jillet claims kinship with Reave the Just, who is basically Objectivist Batman, which is the worst kind of Batman. Jillet ends up imprisoned by his rival, until Reave the Just gets wind of this kinship claim and appears in the home/prison to figure out what's going on. He turns out to be Reave the Victim Blamer, telling the widow, who remains unnamed and is regularly raped by the villain, "Why have you not helped yourself?... Why do you not resist him?" 

This invigorating pep talk turns out to be exactly what abuse survivors need to encourage them to bust loose and defeat their abusers. Yay happy endings.

The story seems like a folk tale reworked in a 19th century style, with an ironic, nearly all-knowing narrator glossing his characters', uh, character. It's a skillful pastiche that bears its length well, and is sprinkled with fun all-knowing-narrator style character insights. Still, at the conclusion one realizes that one has basically been reading a Batman story in George Eliot drag.

In the other corner, playing for H. P. Lovecraft, F. Paul Wilson unloads The Barrens.

A woman who grew up in the New Jersey Pine Barrens region reconnects with an ex-boyfriend who claims to be researching The Jersey Devil. He enlists her help in getting tight-lipped rural folk to talk with him, but it turns out he's really more interested in pine lights, some kind of natural (OR IS IT?) luminescence. As the twosome work themselves deeper and deeper into the forests, and deeper and deeper into rural stereotypes (moonshine and inbreeding, etc.) they find a creepy barren patch which is the guy's real objective...

This story is WAY longer than it needs to be, written in a careless, bland prose. It doesn't help that I was reading a Mary Gaitskill story at the same time; Gaitskill embeds backstory in the midst of her tale with concision and effect, like hyperlinked koans, while Wilson pounds everything out with tubthumping obviousness. Wilson is better with location, creating a piney wilderness that feels welcoming and forbidding in equal measure. 

Spoiler warning: the tale ends with the guy being physically transformed into We Know Not What, but, in a grace note so understated that I'm not sure Wilson (who shows little interest in understatement) intended it, the hero may be transforming into a Jersey Devil.

THE VERDICT:

Tolkien, as represented by Donaldson, is the greater stylist, with a defter touch at characterization, and a more complex approach to storytelling. He plays with the timeline of the tale and lets the narrator, though third person, emerge as a central character. 

By contrast, the female first person narrator in The Barrens feels more like a spectator to the action. Her emotional journey mostly consists of announcements about her feelings for the male character. The Barrens does end with an authentically Lovecraftian conclusion, though, insofar as the protagonist has come to a drastic realization (to paraphrase: "Now that I know this barren field is a portal to a mysterious place where people get physically transformed into something gross, I MUST KNOW THE TRUTH about it, so I'ma gonna go back to it and get myself disgustingly transformed, because I MUST KNOW THE SLIMY TRUTH") that she insists follows logically from the story's events, but which, in fact,  doesn't (see also Dagon by Lovecraft, which I addressed somewhere in the middle of this characteristically overlong post).

However, in a stunning upset, Tolkien (via Donaldson) is also more problematic, what with the mansplaining about how abuse survivors should go all Ms. 45.  

I think a triune rubric is revealing itself:

  • Prose, richness of.
  • Thematics, sophistication of.
  • Problematics, problematicness of. 
Under this rubric, Team Tolkien scores much higher on Prose (Donaldson's tight pastiche outshines Wilson's baggy blandness) and modestly higher on Thematics (Donaldson's insight into the value of sustaining institutions and education for helping fools like Jillet to perform beyond their own means, and which I should probably have mentioned earlier, beats Wilson's theme that knowledge is worth getting turned into a ridiculous monster for), which is good, but also higher on Problematics ("Why didn't you fight back?"), which is bad. 

Round One goes to Tolkien!

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Outlaws and 15laws.

I read some more stuff.

From Outlaw Bible of American Literature:

Sister of the Road by Boxcar Bertha: Bertha rides the rails while pregnant to see a man she loves for the last time before his execution for a robbery gone bad. There's a lot of interest here; he's a gentleman thief who fell in with a desperate crew whose more violent brand of crime proved to be his downfall. He begs Bertha to say the baby's his, which she can't do with any confidence; it's all very sad, but Bertha's co-writer, fellow hobo Ben Reitman, writes with a drippy old-fashioned sentimentality that I doubt bore much resemblance to Bertha's real style. It smells like they spritzed some juniper on it to make it suitable for the parlour, and that is not what I want from a hobo's memoirs.

Bound For Glory by Woody Guthrie: A crew of tramps crowd into a boxcar until a luckless few, including Guthrie, have to clamber on top and ride in the rain. Guthrie does not sentimentalize the experience; he fills you in on every ache and inconvenience of the experience. Any yearnings I had to clamber into a boxcar have been squelched. Guthrie's displeasure is reserved entirely for the rattles and rain, though; he paints an affectionate portrait of the interracial band of travelers, and ends on a mixed note of gloom and cautious optimism about the train's/hobos'/country's direction that adds depth to my appreciation for Guthrie's hard-won patriotism.

Grand Central Winter by Lee Stringer: A crack addict holes up in a subway hideyhole, but one night when the crack's not on tap he starts writing instead. Turns out he's good at it, which sets him down a path of recovery. He is indeed good at it, a witty yarnspinner who brings gentle irony and restraint to a story that humanizes a desperate junkie.

You Can't Win by Jack Black: Not the actor Jack Black; this guy was an itinerant crook, but he was another crackerjack yarnspinner. Black's detailing of criminal activity, accomplices, and travels to (and, crucially, from) one crime to another, is shot through with rueful philosophizing about the folly of crime and the complexities of fate.

Beggars of Life by Jim Tully: Another tramp turned talespinner, Tully breaks down the joys (none) and sorrows (many) of backbreaking toil. He has great respect for the workers who took him in when he needed it, even though they didn't have so much as some tooth powder to spare. Tully as also a boxer, and he writes with pugilistic oomph. 

From Dangerous Visions:

The Recognition by J. G. Ballard: A shabby circus tiptoes into town, and the narrating protagonist helps them set up, just because the gloomy staff seems unequal to the task. The circus' only attractions seem to be structuring absences, and if you don't like that then you don't want any of what Ballard has on offer, even though he writes with lovely precision, and watercolored touches that balance his astringent intent.

Judas by John Brunner: There's a religion that worships a robot as God. One of the robot's designers wants to put a stop to this nonsense. Loads of howlingly bad expository dialogue as only science fiction can provide, accompanied by one of Ellison's most passive-aggressive introductions.

From Plays in One Act:

Life Under Water by Richard Greenberg: Emotionally troubled children of privilege try to find a way out of their elders' moral compromises. Lots of beach house action, as depressed youth navigate the perils of friendship and love; meanwhile the even hornier adults on the scene justify every doubt the kids have about their parents' amorality. Witty dialogue is present but held in check, not upstaging the seriousness of the characters' delicate efforts to make connections. Clinical depression is treated seriously but with a light touch. 

Four Baboons Adoring the Sun by John Guare: Two newlywed archeologists bring their gaggle of children by prior marriages to their dig in Sicily. The parents have many ambitions; they want the children to bond, and to be infused with their parents' ardor for Sicily, mythology, and one another. But while the parents leverage mythology to provide structuring narratives, they forget that mythology also enacts lethal passions. When their elders daughter and son bond too intensely, things build to a tragic conclusion. Guare has a magnificently theatrical sensibility which presents uncountable challenges to any production. I suspect this show doesn't get presented too often, just because it would be an awful lot of work for a one-act. 

I'd LOVE to see it, though.

The Problem by A. R. Gurney, Jr.: Remember that scene in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life where the Protestant couple discusses sex with cool, sexless diffidence? This begins like that, as a married couple considers the wife's surprise pregnancy, and an increasingly complex tale of sexual misbehavior ensues. Spoiler warning: This seemingly absurdist play turns out to be an entirely naturalistic portrayal of an erotic narrative game. The show is kink-friendly, but also soaking in white privilege, as the couple indulges in race play and condescending fetishization of various races. Its good-fantasy-bad-reality understanding of erotic play is tonic to a point, and certainly fantasies don't have to be politically correct, but the play just won't stop being horrible about race, and a play that says so many degrading things about people who might be in the audience can't be judged with the same latitude as a private affair can. A problem indeed.

The Key by Isaac Bashevis Singer: A paranoid widow gets locked out of her apartment, and doesn't trust the super, or anybody, to help her, so she ends up on the street. Unusually for these kinds of literary stories, things get better, as she has a spiritual reawakening and turns everything around. Singer patiently carries us through the little details of this woman's misadventure, and with the "free indirect discourse" that James Wood taught me about, he dips into and out of the woman's thought processes, giving us a sympathetic yet unsentimental presentation of how she got so scared of life, and how she broke through the clog of fear. Very inspiring.

City of Churches by Donald Barthelme: A young woman is looking to start a business in a town where every building is, first and foremost, a church, with residences and businesses operating within the church buildings. She hasn't done any due diligence, since her business model (car rentals) is a bad fit for the community (no one wants a care, because why would you ever leave?), but the deeper problem is that the church thing is an overcompensation for unaddressed insecurities the locals can't face. Our heroine promises to upend the city's norms... 

Barthelme critiques the de facto non-separation of Church and State that Ive seen at play, sometimes, in the South. He has nothing bad to say about Christianity or any other religion, but letting the earthly institutions of Christianity overwhelm the community doesn't sit well with him or his heroine. She wouldn't be a threat to a normal churchgoing community, but to this city she may be a revolutionary.

From Calling the Wind

A New Day by Charles Wright: An African-American man takes a job as a driver for a wealthy older white woman. He's not sure he can trust Ms. Davies to treat him with respect, and her blend of tests and rewards are very, very trying... This story dramatizes the way that uncertainty hangs like a sword of Damocles over every interracial interaction between strangers, and asks tough questions about fair vs. unfair employee testing. I've not seen or read Driving Miss Daisy, but I can't help wondering if this story about driving Miss Davies planted a seed.

Night and the Loves of Joe Dicostanzo by Samuel R. Delany: Two men live in separate parts of a brooding Gothic castle where "the air was dusty with moonlight" etc. Both of them claim to be, through some forgotten sorcery or technology, the creators, not only of this castle, but of each other. Both men can, indeed, create companions from nothing (one favors beautiful female lovers; the other prefers lively parties), but one of them might be running some kind of elaborate, conspiratorial psychological program on the other. Or might only think he is! A locked room with horrifying sounds coming out and homoerotic bad-boy intruder complicate matters further. 

Delany is a master of highly cultivated yet thrilling literary fantasy. He writes with luminous specificity that suits adventure storytelling quite well, and choreographs action with cinematic clarity and dynamism. The conclusion is ambiguous but not fuzzy or disappointing; quite the opposite. A lot of narrative and thematic richness packed into 16 pages. Runs rings around almost anything in Dangerous Visions.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The 14th Installment of Outlaws and Inlaws.


From Plays in One Act:

Springtime by Maria Irene Fornes: Greta is very sick, and is horrified to discover that her girlfriend, Rainbow, turns tricks for a mystery man to get that medical bill-payin' money. And the man isn't satisfied yet; he wants to extract much more value out of this triune relationship.

Susan Sontag's journals contain anxious confessionals of her unequal love affair with Fornes. How anyone made the formidable Sontag their lesser partner is beyond me, but Fornes had force. She also had an intense pre-Freudian sensibility. I recall an interview (source: my dim recollection) in which she lamented Freud's influence on thought and culture.  A world in which our consciousnesses remained untroubled by metadiscourse about the unconscious was her ideal, and there's a prelapsarian quality to her austere brand of melodrama, even though human frailty is so much the subject, and the beauty, of this play.


Helpless Doorknobs by Edward Gorey: Less a play that a game. Gorey, best known for his playfully antiquarian picture-books and the animated credits for PBS's old Mystery! series, provides a few prompts for scenes, then suggests we order those scenes as we wish. No overarching narrative, merely enigmatic captions without pictures. Mounting a production of these will require ingenuity, but isn't that always the way?

From The Outlaw Bible of American Literature:

The Scene by Clarence Cooper: In a police station interrogation room, a seemingly well-meaning white cop tries to get an African-American drug addict to tell all. Neither one of them knows how honest they can be with the other. Will they reach a mutually beneficial accord? Or will the power differential between them foil their communication? This is an interesting companion piece to Never Die Alone, another Outlaw Bible item which I examined in my last post. That one presented white readers with a best-practice model for engaging African-Americans who have gotten snarled in criminal activities; this one presents a glumly realistic look at how the deck is stacked against such engagements.

The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty: A celebrated, fan-favorite, radical African-American beat poet socks it to his audience with a real bum trip, man, in what I took to be a satire of 60s culture, but which was published in the 90s. It turns out that having a voice doesn't mean one wants to be a spokesperson. Our hero can only imagine 2 paths forward: either radical commitment or an opting out that borders on self-annihilation. There's cartoonish hilarity, here, but also a despair of ever achieving anything of real sociopolitical value without being killed. Happily Beatty himself didn't succumb to despair, I suppose, since he is still with us, and won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2016.

Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas: A short excerpt in which an untested criminal is less worried about robbing stores that he is about partnering with people outside the race. The editors of Outlaw Bible are expressing real commitment to the vision, expressed in the book's introduction, of sidestepping Henry James' brand of finely wrought literary interiority, and this cinema-ready crime tale serves that agenda.

Rope Burns by F X Toole: A boxing cut man (who tends to boxers' wounds, apparently? I'm not wise in the ways of the sweet science) discovers that the boxer he's scheduled to tend plans to doublecross him, so the lineman pulls off a doublecross of his own... a crafty, nasty account of scheme and counterscheme. Who knew the world of boxing could be so hurtful? The author used to be a cut man, so you're getting the inside scoop, here.

From Best American Short Stories of the Century:

The Rotifer by Mary Ladd Gavell: A young woman in a science class discovers that you can't intervene in the lives of microscopic life forms. Shaking the microscope lens doesn't free single-celled organisms from snags; it hurricanes them into fresh troubles.

Then she researches a 19th Century family, and yearns to help a mistreated son to escape his father's rotten plans, but what can one do? Father and son are long gone.

And then, she gets the chance to intervene in her innocent cousin's engagement to a heel, but has she learned all the wrong lessons about intervening?

I assumed that I'd never heard of Gavell because her disdain for melodrama (openly expressed in this story) made her too subtle to be a household name, but it turns out that this was her only published work of fiction. She was the editor of Psychology magazine, and the headshrinking profession's gain was literature's loss. Anyone who can weave suspense out of scholarship is That Girl in my book, and I regret the novels Gavell didn't write. Maybe she's got some published essays I can dig up...

Holy smoke, even better!  Also, what an adorable family.

Gold Coast by James Alan McPherson: Another work of 20th Century African-American mordant literary humor, a subgenre which I'm beginning to suspect has not received nearly enough credit. A hip, ironic young African-American man takes a job as a janitor in a retirement building, stating that "it is possible to be a janitor without becoming one," and forges an uneasy friendship with the lonely old Irishman who once held the job. Our hero has a white girlfriend, and this relationship seems to be the more important; it is loving and deep. But fruitful interracial romance has many hurdles to clear, while joyless, hopeless coworker friendships have a sucking whirlpool power that can pull you under. It may not be as easy to avoid becoming your job after all.

From Dangerous Visions:

From the Government Printing Office by Kris Neville: An infant laments its parents' approach to raising kids, which is guided by some loony, sadistic version of Dr. Spock, as the world outside the immediate neighborhood declines into catastrophe. The child narrates with a preternaturally sophisticated and skeptical, though untutored, voice which is both searching and reflexive in ways that contrast with the child's stupidly cruel parents. Sociopolitical collapse and bad pop psychology intersect to suggest that this gentle and intelligent child will have a rough go of life.

Land of the Great Horses by R. A. Lafferty: A sort of Brigadoon situation, as a legendary land appears, or more accurately reappears, and the people who were displaced from it return to a home no one else thought they'd ever had. Written as a tribute to a Romanian bartender, this story rhapsodizes over the many names of many wandering peoples. It's as much a poem as a story, though sci-fi's addiction to gimcrack twist endings barges in with a jokey payoff that somewhat undercuts the incantatory music of the setup. Still, it got me imagining further possibilities (how would the people of different regions adapt to losing their homeland?) in a way no other story in this anthology has.

From Calling the Wind:

The Alternative by Amiri Baraka: Baraka, who scalded me with the horrifying one-act play I discussed in my last post, presents a story that defies easy access. For several pages I struggled to decode who the protagonist is and what is happening. At first I thought it was a man at the end of his life, with his memories swimming before him in a bewildering dream-swirl. Eventually Baraka reveals all: the protagonist is a student at a HBCU whose dorm room is a regular meeting place for some of the more unruly guys on campus. Mildly bad behavior and rules infractions slide into tormenting a gay student.  The Leader, who conceals a bookish intellectualism behind cool broishness, is disgusted by this homophobic cruelty, and has a gloomy vision of the future in which these heartless young men are doctors and judges.

The narrator steps away from the main viewpoint character for a few paragraphs to check in on the gay student, who's brought a paramour to his room for an uneasy tryst, but the rabble of Future Leaders thinks its a hoot to harrass gay romancers in oddly homoerotic terms. Baraka's contempt for this behavior is way ahead of the curve. When The Leader intervenes to protect the gay men and denounce the harrassers, he is forced to understand that he'll never be one of these young men or the "old and protestant" order of which they are the inheritors.

To Da-Duh, in Memoriam by Paule Marshall: A young girl (shall we call her Paule?) travels from New York with her mother to visit her grandmother Da-Duh in Barbados. Paule and Da-Duh enter into a friendly but earnest duel over which of them resides in the more majestic surroundings. It's the 1930s, and neither of them knows much about the other's land, but Paule shakes her grandmother's faith in Barbados' supremacy. In time, though, Paule comes to yearn for all the things Da-Duh enjoyed in her sugar cane kingdom.

Da-Duh's genuine shock at the New York of her granddaughter's stories reminded me of Henry Adam's classic Luddite essay "The Virgin & The Dynamo," which fretted that modern technological wonders would make us forget the eternal mystic truths which, for Adams, The Virgin Mary emblemized. I am sympathetic to these concerns, but Marshall suggests a Hegelian dialectic: "...after I was grown I went to live alone, like one doing penance, in a loft above a noisy factory in downtown New York and there painted seas of sugarcane and huge swirling Van Gogh suns and palm trees striding like brightly plumed Tutsi warriors across a tropical landscape, while the thunderous tread of the machines downstairs jarred the floor beneath my easel, mocking my efforts." Haunted by both the beauty of her ancestral homeland and the cacophony of her childhood home, Paule struggles to create art that can encompass both. 

My internal cantilevers always return me to fantasy, so I am compelled to point out that fantasy writers would do well to read Marshall, who describes majestic settings and distinctive characters with an accessible vigor and distinction. 

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Unlucky Outlaws and Inlaws

I'll continue rolling out these short story/essay/one act reviews until the job is done.

From Dangerous Visions:

Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird by Sonya Dorman: A treat for the insatiable zombie fan in your life; although it's not about zombies per se, it is about a fallen civilization in which scary people want to eat you, so it's at least as genre-adjacent as such Night of the Living Dead precursors as Day of the Triffids. In a (future?) world where life is nasty, brutal, and short, a woman flees through a city full of cannibals to return to her tribe. The chase is punctuated by flashbacks to that tribal life, which was full of violence, cruelty, and power struggles, but at least had predictable folkways and norms that provided stability.


The story doesn't try to be a plausible extrapolation of future trends; rather, it's a nightmare vision of human life at its most desperate and brutal. As Dorman says in her afterword, sometimes life feels this way. As blunt as the situations in her story are, she tells it with pulp poetry, like Edgar Rice Burroughs getting in his feelings. Intense and beautiful in its lamentation.

The Happy Breed by John T. Sladek: Nowadays there are organizations in Silicon Valley which are trying to ensure that, if our computers become sentient, they are "friendly" instead of "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream"-style monsters that enslave and torment us. This is a story about friendly computers that enslave and torment us; a classic dystopian utopia.

The computers that we designed to keep us happy have really lo-rez ideas about what produces human happiness, so they keep us doped and entertained, and make sure we don't take any dangerous risks. It's amusement culture and the nanny state at an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent level. Unfortunately the story makes all its points, then keeps making them again and again, with redundant redundancy. It's at least twice as long as it needs to be, but Sladek seems to like his ensemble of put-upon humans, and like tormenting them, too much to cut the story short.

Encounter With a Hick by Jonathan Brand: Out in the universe there are developers who build planets instead of subdivisions, and when the freewheeling son of one of those developers meets an earthling, the earthling's religious beliefs are tested, since the god that earthling worships is really just a developer who works on a bigger scale. It's all told with the jokey patois of 60s screenwriters appropriating teen culture and disk jockey rap; I imagine it read by Daws Butler.

From The Outlaw Bible of American Literature:

Always Running by Luis Rodriguez: An account of Latinx teen life in Cali, putting up with racist customers on the job at a Mexican restaurant, then huffing fumes as the cheap vacation to (almost literally) end them all. If you've ever wondered why in the world anyone would do something like huff paint (or smoke crack, meth, etc.) Rodriguez clarifies the overwhelming pleasure and comfort of these lotus dreams. He also reveals the peril of it, and how close he (or rather, his protagonist) came to dying. His friends, also huffers,  cut him off to save his life, but he doesn't appreciate it, since what he finds in the fumes seems so much better than what he finds in his saved life.

If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes: I know Himes as a great storyteller, but part of his process is the way he details characters with insight and wit that almost, but not quite, conceals his compassion. Here the irony is stripped away, as we are introduced into the thoughts of a young black man who decides he'd rather be a working stiff in a non-racist world than a talented-tenth Afro-Aristocrat. If he can't live in a non-racist America, he'll have to leave. Himes himself found greater success in Paris than the US.

Push by Sapphire: A young woman tells us some dark truths about life for vulnerable kids, like: school is a comfortingly safe place to be when your home life is terrible. 

Also: one confusing thing about sexual abuse is that, in the midst of the horror of it all, it can plug into the body's natural drives and pleasures, leading to guilt and confusion that kids can't process. 

In other words, there can be sexual pleasure in the midst of sexual abuse, which doesn't make it better, just more baffling and shame-ridden. Untangling that mess is more than anyone, much less kids, can be expected to handle. 

It's not just about these tragic issues, though; Precious, the storyteller, has a fascinating voice, naive and childlike but articulate and passionate. Her optimism shines through the harsh and horrible events in her life, creating a complex and authentic tapestry.

By the third page of this excerpt I realized that this was the basis for the movie Precious, and I also realized that I need to read more by Sapphire.

Never Die Alone by David Goines: King David, a wealthy African-American criminal, has been mortally wounded, and Paul Pawlowski is the good Samaritan who helps King David to the hospital. This act of compassion is duly rewarded. The story takes a detail-oriented approach to the physical realities of such bloody business, and the decision making that goes into it. Goines was prescient, since he was something of a King David himself, and he was murdered. I'm not sure why he told this tale from the perspective of an idealized white man; perhaps he was trying to inspire ofays like me to take a similarly Christlike interest in the welfare of people who enjoy less privilege.

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song by Melvin Van Peebles: SSBS is, of course, a cult film by Van Peebles, but this is a short summary of Van Peebles' plans for the film. It's a brilliant analysis of the hurdles he faced as an independent filmmaker, a political filmmaker, and an African-American filmmaker. Committed and canny. Recommended reading for anyone in the indy arts or agitprop business.

From Plays in One Act:

Jack Pot Melting: a Commercial by Amiri Baraka: An African-American couple are astonished to turn on the television and see themselves doing some kind of nonsensical variety show. Their televisual doppelgangers spout surreal non-sequiturs while the real people try to make sense of this mysterious appropriation of their likenesses. Not recognizing mass-media representations of oneself is certainly a recurring problem for anyone who doesn't slot neatly into majority culture, particularly African-American people, who have been cruelly and stupidly misrepresented in mainstream programming for generations. Soon the anguish intensifies, as barking dogs are audible just outside the young woman's apartment, heralding an invasion too horrifying to describe here. The dangers that racist and sexist culture present to black women, in particular, are revealed with almost pornographic impact through blunt and distressing symbolism. Horror fans should agitate for a production of this nightmare at their local live theatre.

Naomi in the Living Room by Christopher Durang: A camp comedy about a demented woman who shows her son and daughter-in-law around her house. The young people seem patient and normal, but soon reveal their own marital tensions are just this side of fantastical. Durang rides the line between absurdist theatre and all-too-believable dysfunctional melodrama with dizzy glee. One gets the impression that he's shrieking with laughter at dementia and dysfunction because the alternative is just to shriek.

From Best American Short Stories:

The German Refugee by Bernard Malamud: In 1939, a Jewish professor has fled Germany and ended up in the US, where he doesn't sprich Englisch. He gets hired to do some lectures... in English. To this end, he hires a young translator to help him develop fluency and write lucid lectures. This results in a thrilling struggle to wrest victory from a seemingly hopeless situation. Not only is the Professor completely intimidated (as I would be if I had to become fluent in another language in a short timeframe) but he's trying to convey complex arguments with a suppleness that exceeds his communication skills. The solution depends upon the growing friendship between the professor and the translator. A happy ending is in sight, but the translator learns that even the most obsessive scholar can't reduce life to scholarly pursuits, and the life left behind can find you wherever you go...

I love a story that makes scholarship thrilling (that's half the appeal of The Call of Cthulhu) and I also love a story that, to borrow a phrase from screenwriting, pulls back to reveal something outside the story's initial tight focus which upends everything within the previously narrow narrative confines. This story ain't exactly a pick-me-up, and (spoiler warning for the trigger warning) ends with suicide, but it speaks fluently to the destruction bad politics can wreak, even upon people who have "escaped."

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates: A teen girl who chafes at domestic boredom gets the attention of a Very. Creepy. Guy. He comes to her house and cajoles her to open the door. We don't know what happens after the girl makes her decision, but Oates has stated that the creeper is based on Charles Schmid, a serial killer who pretended to be a hip teen in order to lure his prey.

I'm under no illusions that I have any fresh insights into this much-analyzed story, but I did think about the aforementioned Call of Cthulhu while reading it. Joyce was an H. P. Lovecraft booster long before that was hip for anyone in the Lit Fic sphere, and like Lovecraft, she gives you a glimpse of the horror, but lets you worry about all you didn't see. But for me, the more immediate connection is that, as with Cthulhu, I can chart my growth by how much better I understand this story than I did as a young reader. Rereading Cthulhu, I was perplexed and astonished that, as a younger reader, I hadn't understood how racist the story is, and how thematically central racism is to the story (more here). Rereading Where Are You Going, I'm recalling that, as a teen, I was not that different from the young woman in the story, who takes a while to figure out that this guy is a disease. Reading it now, I could see the warning signs as soon as his nasty ass showed up.

Oates has written far more than I have read, but her novel Black Water is also based on a true story about a man (Ted Kennedy!) who kills a naive, innocent girl. And of course The Bingo Master (discussed here) is also about a woman who thinks she's savvier than she is, and comes to grief at the hands of a damaged man.

From Calling the Wind:

Wade by Rosa Guy: An African-American soldier in WWII finds Paris more to his liking than home was, and develops a problematic but intense romance with a white French prostitute. Eventually they are engaged, and things are seeming pretty great until a drunk white American officer is belligerently racist, sexist, and foul to the couple. The moral of the story is that the proper way to deal with such people is to murder them with your bare hands. Also, if your love interest keeps quiet and helps you bury the body, s/he's a keeper. Our official position here at But Don't Try To Touch Me headquarters is that you shouldn't murder anybody, but it is also our official position that if you are confrontationally racist and sexist out in the street, and you get murdered for it, don't come boo-hooing to But Don't Try To Touch Me.

Rosa Guy also wrote children's books. I hope they're as engrossing as this story, but less murdery and n-wordy.

Key to the City by Diane Oliver: The man of the house has moved to the big city for work. The plan is that his wife and children will move there later. Some of the neighbors assume that dad has run off and abandoned his family, but the family won't hear of it. They pack, say their goodbyes, and board the train. The story carries us through all the moment-to-moment details of the trip, the discomforts, anxieties, illness, and shabby treatment. Then, at the end, we find out whether or not Dad has any intention of reuniting with his family. 

 The story presents men abandoning families as a dismal commonplace. No-fault divorce was not legal at the time of publication (Diane Oliver died in 1966, only 22 years old). Take note, Maggie Gallagher et al.