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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

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.