genre, literature, literary genre, and genre trash

It’s been a while, but as I said when I first wrote in the Books category here, I’ve been trying to write a few notes at least when I finish reading a book, so that I’m not just reading book after book after book without really integrating what I’ve read.

I fell off the wagon.

The last book I wrote about was Going Bovine by Libba Bray, and since then I’ve read:

  • The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub (which I read in my late teens and found recently at a community book exchange);
  • We So Seldom Look on Love, stories by Barbara Gowdy (I tend to have a short-story collection on the go at all times, and will read one or two from the collection in-between novels or non-fiction books);
  • The Etched City by K J Bishop (an Australian New Weird novel published by Tor Books in 2005);
  • Lock In by John Scalzi (which was a bit pukey).

It was cool to read The Talisman again, because it was one of my favourite books in my late teens ~ by that I mean I remember vastly enjoying it, but I never remembered much more than that about it, except a vague image of a young boy on the road, travelling through dangerous ‘territory’. Reading it again this time I was mildly surprised that not one of the words brought back any real memory of the actual story. So mostly it was like reading a novel for the first time. The story was kind of bloated and over-written ~ it takes a long time for the good stuff to happen, and many of the narrative tangents don’t really contribute much to the theme or plot (though they do a good job of developing a rich character in Jack). But I enjoyed it ~ especially the whole notion of how myriad parallel dimensions revolve around the Talisman, which is a theme that must have sunk in deep when I was a kid, because the novel I’m working on goes near similar territory, and apparently King goes deeper down this path in the Dark Tower series, which I’m keen to look at soon.

The stories in We So Seldom Look on Love, by Barbara Gowdy, are brilliant ~ dark, semi-erotic, bordering on perverse, but deeply human and affecting, plus her style and voice are assured and consistent. My wife put me on to it ~ it’s a collection she has had on her shelf for a long time, and which she revisits now and then (such is the quality of the stories). There’s a story about a troubled child who drills a hole in her head, a story about a guy who ‘saves’ a Siamese twin (though not before having sex with them), and a story about a relationship of sorts between a married woman and the voyeur next door. Oh, and the title story about the relationships of a necrophiliac. (I was pleased to learn just now that a synonym for ‘necrophilia’ is ‘thanatophilia’: I wrote an assignment for my lit studies subject last year about what I decided to call ‘thanotic sublimation’, which, I decided, is similar to erotic sublimation except it takes the form of yonic symbolism instead of phallic.) I very much value the ability to embrace the shadowside of ourselves, especially (or perhaps only) since reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being in my early twenties. So I love it when an author is able to lovingly depict characters who would otherwise be considered perverse or even perverted ~ apart from stylistic concerns like fluidity and the suspension of disbelief, I reckon such a function is an essential factor in determining what makes good writing great literature.

The Etched City by K J Bishop was aesthetically beautiful and deeply engaging at a sentence level, but the story and plot left a lot to be desired, in my opinion ~ an assassin escapes a Dystopian Wasteland for a Victorian-esque Wretched Hive city, has a hallucinatory relationship with another assassin he used to know, and then … I actually don’t remember how it ends, because I had lost interest in the story by that point. I think he goes back to the wasteland, and she evaporates into the whisps of hallucination. I read this because: 1), it’s an explicitly New Weird novel, and 2), it’s Australian. And I enjoyed it, but I’m such a sucker for good strong narrative that I sometimes felt it missed an opportunity to be a great story. No regrets. And I admire the courage to write something that doesn’t depend entirely on plot or story to get people turning the pages.

The virtual-reality sci-fi balls-up of John Scalzi’s Lock In is mass-market genre trash that holds value as market research, but that’s about it. The characters are implausible cardboard cutouts, the virtual-reality depictions are lame, and the myriad plot holes are back-filled with dialogue that would never happen among halfway-intelligent adults. I don’t think I can even be bothered finding a cover to upload. If you find yourself deserted on a temperate island in mid-winter with only this book for company, use it to start a fire and keep warm.

Going Bovine by Libba Bray

wherein Bodhi does not write a
review ~ just a blogspurt

In my current search for books in the new-weird genre, I came across Going Bovine by Libba Bray, which depicts a wild, hallucinatory road trip across America in search of a mad-cow-disease cure for high-school-stoner Cameron Smith. It was okay ~ I’m glad I read it, and I’m doing my best to appreciate it for what it is ~ but these events-driven narratives are just not really my bag.

I say ‘events-driven’ narrative because I can’t really say the book was plot-driven, and it definitely wasn’t character-driven: the plot is deliberately implausible, and the characters are a bit two-dimensional, except for Cameron, although his surname is the bog-standard Smith, which suggests that Bray didn’t think too much into whether this character would have any nuances to distinguish him from any other high-school-stoner stereotype. He’s a smart kid, but a lot of the time his elaborate reflections on the nature of life, love and the universe make him feel more like a vehicle for Bray’s ideas than a character in his own right. The events he has to go through to arrive at places where such reflections might feel plausible are the driving force in this story, and if you’re okay with that, you’ll enjoy it.

I recently read China Miéville’s novel Un Lun Dun, which employs a similar approach to narrative, and these types of books continue a long and esteemed tradition including Hitch-hiker’s Guide (which is referenced in blurb quotes on the edition I read) and the Discworld novels of Terry Pratchett. I’m sure we could include the Arabian Nights in this tradition as well, and even the Bible in all of its radical implausibility. Going Bovine also fits into what I would characterise as the ‘ideas novel’, where ideas are more important than plot or character. But unfortunately this novel just doesn’t live up to the standards of these traditions.

It’s too long, for starters. I love a good long novel, but I don’t go in for length resulting from sloppy plotting, and at almost 500 pages, it wasn’t until around chapter ten that the first real premise of the story was mentioned: Cameron has mad cow disease, and is informed by a punk-angel called Dulcie that he must find Dr X, the parallel-dimension-hopping physicist who accidentally created a wormhole and released the prions that are causing the disease and jeopardising the fabric of reality. (Yep, he’s called Dr X, and this is just one of the many instances where Bray seems to have used placeholder names in a novel-writing template, then forgot to come back and edit the fields with something more unique. Drs A, T, O, and M are pretty cool though.)

Cameron then convinces Gonzo, a Little Person of Mexican descent, to come with him for the journey ~ Gonzo repeatedly complains that it’s a stupid idea, but goes along anyway, threatening to phone his mum and call the whole thing off, but then never actually doing it, to the point where I began to understand that this was just a flawed device for creating character tension, which immediately dissipated once I realised that no amount of complaining was actually going to be met with follow-through: if the character acted on his feelings, Bray wouldn’t have a sidekick for Cameron.

And the prion-actions that are causing Cameron’s debilitating disease, which would otherwise prevent him from going to the toilet on his own, let alone trek across America … these are held at bay by a too-convenient wristband. So the book starts (after too many preliminary chapters) with a deus ex machina, which was a red flag I chose to ignore because I was hoping the shonky plotting and characterisation would be worth it for the ideas.

Alas, the hijinks they go through are funny (they rescue a kidnapped garden gnome who believes he is the Norse god Balder, destroy a chain restaurant trying to escape the fire giants who got through the wormhole and are trying to kill them, and sabotage a happiness cult by unwittingly causing a ‘reality revolution’), but I just didn’t care because the characters are templates and their story is nothing more than a vehicle for Bray’s surface-level ruminations on the many-world’s interpretation of quantum physics, which I so desperately wanted to enjoy because it’s one of my favourite subjects, and something I’d like to … *ahem* … enfold in the novel manuscript I’m working on. So I was bummed that I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as I was hoping I would.

So yeah, I read this as research as much as for leisure, and it’s going on the inspiration pile because it’s New Weird (part quantum-sci-fi, part urban-mythological-fantasy, part bildungsroman, part tragi-comedy, part YA, all roadtrip), but it’s going on the how-not-to-write pile, simply because this is just not my kind of book. It’s not the sort of book I want to write, because it’s not the sort of book I enjoy reading very much. I enjoyed it, on some levels, but not on enough levels that I would aspire to even read it again, let alone write something like it. I don’t mean to sound harsh ~ it’s just not for me. It’s not a terrible book, but it’s not a great book either.

That said, the conclusion is surprisingly well-constructed and effective. The ending is described on All the Tropes as being a ‘gainax ending’, meaning an ending that doesn’t make sense, but it does make sense in the context of Cameron’s/Bray’s appropriately-half-formed ideas about life after death. So I enjoyed the ending a lot, because it’s not neatly resolved and it’s not exactly a happy ending. The book didn’t need to spend 500 pages getting there, but I’m glad it go there in the end. If you’re into easy-reading pan-genre New Weird strangeness and you like watching high-school stoners do implausible things and learn a few basic insights along the way, check it out.

The Human Zoo

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I’ve just finished reading The Human Zoo by Desmond Morris, which, in reprints, bears the subtitle, ‘A Zoologist’s Classic Study of the Urban Animal’. It reads and feels like a classic, and I was glad to find an old (1971) edition at the Lifeline Book Fair last year. The dustjacket is haggard, bearing a meagre black typeface on a red background, barely covering a cloth-bound hardback with yellowed pages I was originally reluctant to mark with a pen or even subject to dog-earing.

I was also not compelled to mark the text because, frankly, the insights and ideas in the book are not exactly thrilling or groundbreaking ~ I didn’t find that much to remark upon, at least in the early chapters. By the end, especially in the chapter, ‘The Childlike Adult’, I was feeling somewhat more moved.

The book does open with a compelling notion to challenge the criticism of modernity as a ‘concrete jungle’: Morris goes one further, saying it’s worse than a jungle ~ it’s a human zoo, where captive human animals murder each other, waste their energy on the pursuit of unnecessary status symbols, and masturbate furiously to kill time and get a dopamine hit, which are things that wild animals apparently do not do. One of my favourite t-shirts reads ‘concrete jungle’, so now I feel like a bit of a chump when I wear that.

He also touches on something raised by Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock, which is the basic idea that humans have not evolved biologically to keep up with the pace of evolution we see in technology and industry: we’re simply not designed to live in the sorts of environments that now surround us. He talks about this in terms of ‘tribes and super-tribes’, which is the title of his first chapter:

there was a time in our evolutionary history where every one of the 120-or-so members of the tribe/village knew everyone else, and there were very few stressors beyond the demands of hunting and gathering, maybe tending a few crops after we invented farming; now that we’re living in super-tribes, where anonymity is the default, we are beginning to suffer from problems like fixation with ‘super-status’ (chapter two), and addictions to ‘super-sex’ (chapter three).

(I say ‘beginning to’, but remember Morris’s observations were being made in the late 60s early 70s, so we’re 50-odd-years down the path he pointed out for us way back then.)m

It was a vaguely entertaining light-read, but many of Morris’s observations are limited by the catch-all ‘super’ qualifier, and many are super-reductive and over-simplistic. In Chapter 5, ‘Imprinting and Mal-imprinting’, he claims that homosexuality is an aberration resulting from problematic upbringing. In Chapter 6, ‘The Stimulus Struggle’, he reduces the history of human art to nothing more than a pursuit of stimulus ~ we are so under-stimulated because we don’t have to hunt or gather anymore, that we make art for the sake of trinkets. And he attributes all guitar-playing to a phallic fixation.

These ideas are patently ridiculous, and were difficult to read without vomiting scorn into my mouth. He has a tendency to make such claims, provide some evidence that could (at a stretch) be interpreted as support for that claim, completely ignore the possibility of other interpretations, and then say, ‘See, I proved that all guitarists are repressed wankers.’

He introduces a nice idea at the end: that if adults can retain their childlike qualities as they age, we can hope to find creative and explorative ways out of the situation we’ve created for ourselves. It was an interesting book to read, even if it was a bit glib and mostly bland ~ maybe these were profound insights 50 years ago, but I think anyone reading this with even a vague sense of awareness about the world today would not be surprised or freshly enlightened to read them. It’s a classic text that I was excited to find and read, and I’ll probably check out his Naked Ape if I find it in the two-dollar pile at next year’s book fair, but I don’t think I’ll deliberately hunt it down.

And despite my reflex to dismiss the whole thing as the rambling half-thoughts of a drunken uncle at Christmas, the book still falls into my category of paradigm-expanding texts: reading it has reminded me, again, that living in the modern world comes with consequences extending their roots all the way back to the dawn of humanity. After reading such a book, when I stress about uni or finances or getting another cold sore after three sleepless nights in a row, I don’t beat up on myself so much for having trouble coping. It’s a veritable zoo out there ~ the conditions we have created for ourselves are not exactly conducive to that wild sort of happiness we tend to expect from life. So if I’m happy some of the time, and not depressed most of the time, I think I’m doing alright. 

House of {Thieves}

not a review ~ does have vague spoilers

I’ve just finished reading House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, and I found it fascinating (of course). Reading this combined with the intro to literary and cultural theory subject I’m taking at uni (plus the intro to genre subject I’m taking), has left me feeling all sorts of dizzy and awestruck by the power of narrative/signs to have bizzare and illuminating effects on the mind, while also leaving me baffled and certain that certainty is a lie.

I was fascinated, of course, because the book is a mystery wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a rasher of bacon thrown down a bottomless stairwell, but also I was fascinated, I think, because the book contains many and varied clues about WTF it might actually be on about, and I have immensely enjoyed dwelling in that strange liminal place between understanding and confusion. But I have a certain disposition ~ I quite like ambiguity, and I’m generally okay with accepting that mostly I don’t understand things, and when I do feel like I understand them I am always/usually prepared for this understanding to come crashing down among paroxysms of fear and uncertainty about the meaning of anything, not just life.

My first impression of the book (riddled as it is with footnotes in footnotes in footnotes, and the whole thing about exploring an unknown space with the intention to define it, understand it, make it known, and how this is ultimately futile because knowing is a ruse, a construct, a decision that must necessarily preclude other types of knowing) is that it’s one great big lumbering comment on the nature of academic enquiry, especially things like literary and cultural studies. The invented academic commentary about a non-existent film about a house that theoretically should not exist, left me with the early impression that the book is a comment on the stupidity of trying to categorise things, and the tendency of academics to shroud their feelings of stupidity/inferiority with obfuscating language and irrelevant tangents, lest they be discovered pretending they know things they cannot possibly know.

I should say, I mean, that my first impression was that the book is a protracted comment on the idea that we cannot know, and therefore our search for meaning is futile because meaning is a construct that can change or collapse at any moment, especially if we try to maintain a liberal mindset, and by ‘liberal’ here I mean ‘flexible’, based on a quote I like from Bertrand Russell:

The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment.

Whether he said this or not, I don’t know, and I don’t know the context in which he said it ~ knowing the unreliability of the internet, though, which is where I found this idea in the first place, I have my doubts. Nonetheless, I cherish the idea ~ and will cherish it until new evidence may convince me that I should change my mind and become (wholly) conservative (I do have some views that might be considered conservative, such as a preference for diversity over equality if I had to put these two values in a hierarchy, which may not be a conservative value: I just know arguing against equality among liberals causes people to wince).

Anyway, my first impression was that the whole book is a comment on postmodernism and how it’s fucked up everyone’s chances of every being able to say they understand anything without being called out as a reductionist, and a semantic chauvinist/jingo to boot. We haven’t got around to actually learning about postmodernism yet, so I’m feeling a bit presumptious about reducing this book to just a comment on the presumptions of postmodernism, though it is fair to say, as did Steven Poole in the Guardian, that the novel is ‘a delightful and often very funny satire of academic criticism’. So it’s that ~ category number one: satire. Tick. (Hypocrisy witnessed, stupidity accepted.)

But it’s also something else, and this reading of the novel has been formulating in a weird way around things I’ve been learning at uni as well. The whole thing is a metaphor for American colonisation, which is explained in such a way that I don’t need to attempt it here. The first clue for me was when I started to learn (in the book) that Virginia is the site of America’s earliest colony, and in the book a journal is found that details a hunting expedition where the colonists found a set of stairs descending into the earth out of nowhere. So the staircase at the centre of the house has been there since long before the house was actually built, since the dawn of American colonisation, at least. Perhaps the darkness at the heart of the house is the horror, shame and guilt at the heart of all who participate in the colonial endeavour (which continues, BTW, no matter who tells you we live in a postcolonial age). I think so.

The cool thing about this act of interpretation, in the context of what I’m learning about semiotics and literary theory and postmodernism and the like, is that if I interpret these words to be a metaphor for one thing or another, I can say, ‘I think [so and so]’, and it’s pretty much always going to be correct, as long as I can back it up with something approaching logic, as long as I can point to things that make my conclusion seem at least half reasonable. So for me, House of Leaves will always mean something specific, which is both right and wrong (right to me, and wrong to you, unless you agree, but also wrong to me because it will always mean something else as well, simultaneously). And with this I reveal the other aspect of a predisposition: as much as I’m okay with ambiguity and uncertainty, I do like to feel a sense of understanding/knowing after I’ve been confused for over 700 pages.

For this reason, I would also say the book is a metaphor for how narcissism and egotism get in the way of healthy human relationships: to me (and other, fictional, analysts in the book) the house represents the psyche, as in so many dreams (cf. Jung), and the ‘Navidson house’ in House of Leaves frequently behaves in such a way that it’s impossible not to wonder if the house represents/reflects each of the fears/hopes of the people who enter its dark spaces, especially Will and Karen, and also Holloway.

The other and final note I want to make about the book, is that as far as I can tell the whole thing was nothing more and nothing less than a wild and comprehensive hallucination of Johnny’s. There are clues for this in the text, but they are buried in such a way that I don’t especially care to dig them out (also, somewhat, I’d rather hold this reading close for now, because it references my interest in psychosis and what the experience of psychosis does to a person’s lasting impressions of what constitutes reality).

And it left me with this fictional quote, which I love because even though I’m passionate about reading, writing and literature, sometimes I feel like a fraud when sitting down at the desk to actually do the creating feels like the last thing I actually want to do:

Passion has little to do with euphoria and everything to do with patience. It is not about feeling good. It is about endurance. Like patience, passion comes from the same Latin root: pati. It does not mean to flow with exuberance. It means to suffer.

(Not that I identify at all with the idea of ‘the suffering artist’. I never really did, which is perhaps why I so easily sold out my literary ambitions to become an editor in my early career. Now that I’ve got that out of my system I look forward to a rich and balanced life of literary creation, in which I eat food instead of mi goreng for breakfast lunch and dinner. I just resonate with the idea that if you’re passionate about something, especially creativity, it’s important to remember that sometimes you have to just plough through the work, even, and perhaps especially, when you’re not really feelin it.)

All told it was one of the most painfully enjoyable literary experiences of my life, and I know it’s one of those books that will … *ahem* … haunt me for a very long time, yielding new meanings as I encounter new theories / ideas / texts and as I begin to meet others who have read it. So drop a comment below if you feel like it ~ I’d love to join the conversation

digital panopticon

Whoa!

I recently finished reading Digital Vertigo, a book by Andrew Keen with the subtitle, ‘How Today’s Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us’. I’ve been trying to write a few notes at least when I finish reading a book, so that I’m not just reading book after book after book without really integrating what I’ve read. To do so for Digital Vertigo in anything approaching a comprehensive way would take waaaaaaay too long – it’s pretty jam-packed with references and metaphors and ideas supporting the main thesis from various pop-cultural angles.

So instead of trying to write anything comprehensive about the book I’m just going to summarise what I understand to be its core thesis, which happens to be a subject dear to my heart: the online social media revolution is turning our culture into one great big panopticon of suck. I picked up the book because I’m interested in internet critiques, but had no idea Keen would take his critique into the realm of the panopticon, which I love because it’s easy to hate and because it’s just a cool-sounding word.

bleak AF

This image of the Presidio Modelo prison complex in Cuba is often used to illustrate the notion of panopticon, I suppose because (apart from it being a literal instance of a panopticon-style prison) it evokes the feeling of a creepy stable for domestic beasts of burden and because it looks about as bleak as the best dystopian fiction can make us feel.

To directly quote the wonderful Wikipedia, ‘ The panopticon is a type of institutional building and a system of control designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century’. The building in the above image has a central tower from which every one of those cells can be observed. It doesn’t really matter whether there’s a guard in that tower or not: the idea was that if prisoners merely believed they were being observed, they would begin to self-enforce the rules imposed by the institution.

That’s a simplified interpretation of Bentham’s theory, and in Keen’s book this idea is expanded upon as an analogy for the ever-broadcasting mode of social media: by constantly revealing intimate details of ourselves, the state no longer has to engage in covert surveillance to access our data, personalities and identities – we give it away for free, in exchange for advertising-sponsered ‘free’ services.

The result is a culture where everyone feels observed all the time. One result of this culture is a tendency to self-censor and to err on the side of political correctness, which really worries me – the importance of free speech and free thought cannot be emphasized enough, of course, and when we inhibit this freedom ourselves because we’re unconsciously worried that our icky-shadow thoughts might reveal us to be horrible people to the audience we’re trying to impress with our selfies and travel photos, there is no longer any need to fear state-side suppression, because we repress all that nasty shit ourselves.

I rarely use social media these days, largely because I had begun to feel something suss about it. So perhaps I was the perfect audience for a book like this – because I’m a malcontent and latent dissenter, this book took me to the heart of fears about the internet I hadn’t even really unpacked.

It’s a decent read, even if the writing starts to feel a bit dry and journalistic at times (when he’s not throwing in annoying scene descriptions to make the writing more warm but which just feel forced and over-written), and there are loads of tendrils into the internet in the form of reference links if you want to pursue the subject into the rabbit hole.

Cory Doctorow’s novel, For the Win

I really enjoyed reading For the Win, Cory Doctorow’s second novel about kids wreaking havoc with systems most of their local adults would claim they don’t understand. At first I was dubious, because there’s a lot of overtly expository economic brain-dumping going on, and also because the opening line was a dud.

But I started to warm to it and eventually realised that Doctorow is doing what I love Milan Kundera so much for doing: interweaving non-fiction-ish philosophical asides with a fiction narrative. Doctorow’s story here was way more accessible to me (an 80s-born Australian nerd who would like to find more time for gaming in his life) than Kundera’s stories, because I am definitely not a 20s-Czech-born French public intellectual. But I love Kundera’s stories for the way they weave in philosophy, and I came around to Doctorow’s way of doing it.

Doctorow is not exactly a master stylist (there are some clunky phrases in there, and some repetition of character description that felt cut-pasted), but neither was H G Wells, or Kundera, for that matter, or PKD, or Asimov. These are ideas novelists, who I love for their ability to squeeze powerful intellectual motives into usually-engaging literary and genre fiction, even if the prose is a bit less than aesthetically pleasing. And I know Doctorow from his powerful online activism, so I didn’t turn to For the Win for delicately undulating prose.

It’s worth a read if you’re interested in unionism, worker rights, global economics and the exploits of highly precocious teens with attitude. If you’re just into gaming though, I expect you’ll be disappointed. The in-game stories were pretty lame (compared to, say, Ready Player One), so I wasn’t surprised to read in the book’s acknowledgements that Doctorow had to call in research support for that subject as well as his pan-cultural references (which also felt a bit glib).

The chunk of economics download I like the best:

And that’s the real reason the powerful fear open systems and networks. If anyone can set up a free voicecall to anyone else in the world, using the net, then we can all communicate with the same ease that’s standard for the high and mighty. If anyone can create and sell virtual wealth in a game, then we’re all in the same economic shoes as the multinational megacorps that start the games.

And if any worker, anywhere, can communicate with any other worker, anywhere, for free, instantaneously, without her boss’s permission, then, brother, look out, because the Coase cost of demanding better pay, better working conditions and a slice of the pie just got a lot cheaper. And the people who have the power aren’t going to sit still and let a bunch of grunts take it away from them.