Danaerys is the villain, I mean come on everyone, that’s the whole point

Dany is the villain. That is the point of her arc.

She is turning into Mad King Aerys. We are explicitly told that when a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin: genius or madness. Dany's coin is starting to land the wrong way. Like her father, who was charismatic in his youth, Dany is likeable right now, but she is slowly strarting to enjoy the fire burnin' just a wee bit too much.

On discussion forums I've seen many a misognyst talk about how tired they are of seeing her "smug" face. In Episode 4 of Season 6, however, that was part of the point. 

She was smug.

She was enjoying her self.

And that's ****ed up.

She was enjoying herself roasting a bunch of people alive. 

We were not supposed to cheer for her.

(I mean, sure, on the one hand, screw those guys. On the other, that doesn't make it less messed up. This isn't Dexter.)

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Jaime's monologue in the bath with Brienne about Aery's obsession with wildfire is crazy on-the-nose if you apply it to Dany. 

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"He burned anyone who was against him."

Yeah, that sounds familiar.

What's Dany's go-to strategy again? Oh.

It's just that we've been lulled into rooting for Dany, only to slowly come to grips with the fact that what she's doing is not okay, and we're rooting for her only because we're reading her through standard fantasy tropes, rather than through what the text is showing us.

The difference between Aerys and Dany is that Dany didn't burn in the fire. Aerys didn't expect to die, and Dany didn't expect to die. Dany just happened to actually survive, and happened to "rise again" — not as a dragon, but with three baby dragons.

But let's be real: this doesn't justify everything she does.

Like if ol' "Mad" King Aerys had just… not died when he tried to burn everything with wildfire, that wouldn't make him right. It's just that the the form of the story — that of a fantasy or romance — invites us to interpret Dany in precisely this fashion.

Sure, there's a certain amount of awe that everyone shows her immediately after that scene, but it's no longer a "oh this seemingly helpless girl overcame all the odds and survived fire, and now magic is real and maybe we'll actually survive this, hurrayyyy…." like it was when her dragons were born at the end of Season 1. 

It's awe in an old Testament, fear-inspired kind of way. Even her lover, Daario, isn't mesmerized by her in the sense of oh wow, this woman I'm with is amazing; instead, it's a genuinely fearful kind of awe. 

What we just witnessed in that scene, and immediately after, was mythic violence, in the Benjaminian sense of the word. It was the performance and display of state power that keeps the populace in check.

That's uh… that's not a good thing.

Also, that's before you bring her dragons into the picture. 

They're pretty much the metaphor for state power and mythic violence par excellence: "Do what I say because I have the magic dragons."

That's a terrible justification, and I think both George R. R. Martin and the showrunners are aware of that.

The criticism that the Khal-burning scene in Season 6 echoes the end of Season 1 is missing the point. The point is that yeah, she's doing it again–except, oh wait, maybe burning a bunch of people alive and taking control of an army isn't really that great.

Maybe "miraculously surviving the flames" actually isn't a very good justification for doing whatever you want, even though we're trained to read fantasy and/or medieval romance texts in that manner.

A typical medieval romance, upon which 99% of fantasy is based, usually serves to entrench the aristocracy in their aristocratic positions: the rightful king is discovered and restored, everyone is happy. Heck, it even happens in Lord of the Rings. (Seriously, doesn't that "blood of Gondor" stuff make anyone else uncomfortable?)

The books and the show subvert a lot of fantasy and medieval romance tropes because the books and the show are not A-OK with what those tropes represent. That is, fantasy and medieval romance tropes are the way they are because they are connected to the political climates which gave birth to them. This is the argument of Fredric Jameson's The Political Unconscious. The idea of the rightful king being restored to the throne as the "solution" to the standard problems of medieval romance comes from a very specific political climate. 

That's why in the books and show, a lot of time is spent emphasising just how much the War of the Five Kings is screwing over the country side, and now there's a bloody Marxist revolution being run by the church. Also, Dany's entire arc in Mereen is an allegory for hundreds of years of colonialism: British, American, take your pick. It's also a subversion of, you guessed it, more fantasy tropes (the white savior, etc.) which — yep, you guessed it again — stem from very specific political climates.

Here's my prediction for how the rest of Dany's arc will play out:

Instead of "stabilizing" Mereen, she'll use her new Dothraki army, her Unsullied (whatever's left of them, I guess?) and her dragons to burn the hell out of both Yunkai and Astapor. So instead of "getting rid of slavery yayyyyy!!" what she'll "accomplish" before finally (finally amirite) going to Westeros will be a terrible swath of death and destruction. 

"Hey Westeros I just screwed over half a continent. Now I (think) am the rightful heir to the throne, and I've got magic on my side (in the form of weapons of magical mass destruction). This is totally cool, right? Right? I'm justified in starting yet another war that screws over the populace? R… right?"

Readers and show watchers have been clamoring for her to "finally" get to Westeros.

Why hasn't she?

Because first she needed to leave a path of death and destruction. The dragons growing up is minor. (It could have been explained with "magic" anyway.) What was more important was that we needed to see that "Fire and Blood!" isn't a call of the people, it's a call-to-arms given by the privileged elite, the ones with all the power and the (magic) weapons.

 

Final Thoughts (+ Predictions)

If you don't believe me, juxtapose the arc I'm claiming Dany is having to the one Jaime has already had. It's just that Dany is going in the opposite direction. Jaime started out as a child murderer and obvious villain, but the books and show refused to deny him his humanity. This isn't "relativism," or anything like that, just an acknowledgement that human beings are human, even the shitty ones. Jaime is still a terrible person. But he's a terrible personIt's also similar to how the Khals were obvious jerks who in between sessions of raping and pillaging just spouted nasty misogynist absurdities, and yeah they probably deserved to die far more than most people in this series (which is saying something), but still: at the end of the day, burning them alive with a look of glee on your face isn't really the mark of a hero. Sorry. It just isn't.

On the opposite end of the spectrum to Jaime, Dany started out as the heroine. And yes, she does have good intentions, but she's got just a wee bit of the Targaryen craziness and a sense of aristocratic entitlement in her, from her father, Aerys. 

The character I'm not sure about is Jon Snow. Like he seems like he should be… worse, somehow. Here's what I mean:

Dany is subverting her role as a pure heroine, as I argued above. Well and good. She's a real person, not an empty vessel of wish-fulfilment.

In the books, Tyrion has had his privilege shoved in his face, and he's been shown to not be very perfect (e.g. Shae was handled differently). He's mostly not a standard hero, either. 

Ned was the "standard male hero" from a typical fantasy story–and it got him killed. Cool. 

Bran is also doing nasty things, and is clearly not the hero. The way he takes over Hodor sometimes is NOT AT ALL OKAY. Note that I actually feel like Bran is the Northern equivalent of Dany. If she's the human villain of fire and the Doom of Valyria in the South, Bran is the human villain of ice and the Others beyond the Wall. It's just there's less interesting stuff to say about him. Like he seems a bit innocent and might become a cool wizard, but then he does a thing that is obviously not okay (taking over Hodor, not to mention probably feeding on people via Bloodraven, etc.). Dany's arc is more subtle, and more interesting.

But Jon seems to be getting away kind of unscathed, and I'm not sure why.

I have two ideas:

1. When he's resurrected in the books he won't be the same. The show, so far, has yet to really show the consequences of this. Maybe it'll move towards that direction.

2. If Dany is the villain from the south, the villain of fire, etc., and the daughter of Mad King Aerys, and Bran is the villain of the north, the villain of ice, etc., and the son of a Stark (oh hey the Night's King is actually a Stark), then Jon is in the middle: the son of Lyanna and Rhaegar, he's the song of ice and fire. That's why he's a hero without the fantasy-tropes deconstruction we see everywhere else in the series. (Yet.)

 

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But did you pay the IRON PRICE?

If you’ve read far enough in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire you’ve probably met Theon Greyjoy’s people, the iron islanders. The iron isolanders feature more prominently in A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, if I remember correctly.

Theon’s father, Balon Greyjoy, is obssessed with paying the “iron price” for everything, and the iron price means using your (iron) sword and murdering some guy and taking his stuff.

The iron islanders are basically vikings, so they have to pillage everything they have. The Greyjoy house words are “We do not sow.” As in, they’re not supposed to farm. They just steal everything they need.

Balon insists that you have to pay the iron price for everything you own or have. If you’ve watched the Game of Thrones tv show you’ve seen that scene where Balon mocks Theon for not paying the iron price for that armor he has.

The thing is, the whole idea of “paying the iron price” is obviously totally unfeasible.

What about food or fishing? Why do we see fishermen among the iron islanders? What about trade? How do they survive?

Like, why would anyone else in the seven kingdoms put up with these assholes if, instead of trading, they just murdered people and took their stuff? Repeatedly? [1]

[1] Side note: Okay, everything I’m about to say aside, If you’ve read the series, “why does anyone put up with the iron islanders?” is actually a really good question. They’re generally useless and back stab and rise up in rebellion all the time. But anyway.

The answer, regarding what’s up with the iron price, is that of course it’s not feasible at all, and it’s not supposed to be.

It’s a great example of a really transparent and silly ideology that nonetheless everyone just goes along with, because hey, it greases the wheels and keeps the system working.

This is actually what makes the iron price so great. It makes no sense and stands up to not even the tiniest bit of scrutiny if you take it too literally.

But no one does, because that’s not how it works.

Instead, it’s a nuanced social code that everyone knows how to navigate in order to actually get things done:

Guy 1: “Hey, did you pay the iron price for all this stuff you obviously farmed?”

Guy 2: “Uh, sure. Yeah, technically. One of the shovels I used I took from some guy I murdered.”

Guy 1: “Cool. Well, I need some grain, so I’ll give you these coins that we’ll just assume were probably stolen at some point in the past.”

Guy 2: “Done.”

Alternatively:

Guy 1: “Hey, I’m hungry, you got any fish? I stole these coins, you can have ’em. But I need fish.”

Guy 2: “Yeah, I got lotsa fish!”

Guy 1: “Did you pay the iron price for them?”

Guy 2: “Insofar as my fishhooks were made of iron, and I ‘stole’ them from the sea, yes, yes I totally paid the iron price.”

Guy 1: “Cool.”

See? Stuff gets done. Trade happens.

Everyone’s happy.

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J.D. Salinger’s “Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” has been leaked

Four years ago (!) I wrote a post about hard to find, unpublished short stories by J.D. Salinger, including his short story “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls.”

Since then I’ve taught a few English Lit courses that have had several of Salinger’s short stories and Catcher in the Rye on the syllabus. Also (more sadly) J.D. Salinger passed away, and because of this, there has been some news about his estate: some of his unpublished stuff is going to come out. (Whoa.)

And now, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” has leaked, and it’s online. (Double whoa.)

I find “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” interesting because it sheds a lot of light on Salinger’s more famous novel, Catcher. The story is about Holden’s brother, Allie (called “Kenneth” in the story). Allie’s death has totally traumatized Holden, and this colours his inability to grow up or let other children “fall” into experience.

Here’s one bit I think is interesting, from Holden’s letter to his older brother, Vincent (the narrator of “Bowling Balls”):

“This place stinks. I never saw so many rats. You have to make stuff out of lether [sic] and go for hikes. They got a contest between the reds and the whites. I am supposed to be a white. I am no lousy white.”

“I am no lousy white” is pretty great, especially compared to what Holden says in Catcher in the Rye.

When Mr. Spencer insists that life is a game, Holden thinks to himself, “Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, all right–I’ll admit that. but if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game.”

In other words, Holden feels like shit for 1) actually being on the winning side (recall his guilt about having a “bourgeois” suitcase) and 2) because he’s not on the side of innocence (white) but rather experience (red).

It’s a whole other blog post, but what I like about Catcher is that you’re supposed to think Holden’s a total jerk, but you’re supposed to sympathize with him anyway.

Why? Because your problem sympathizing with Holden (a phony) is the same problem Holden has sympathizing with everyone else.

It’s like there are three levels of engagement with the novel.

First:

Holden’s great! The world is full of phonies. Screw everything! I am a unique and beautiful snowflake! *insert impotent cry of rage at how dumb society totally is*

(You know those crazy people who go on murder sprees and then Catcher in the Rye is, like, found in their jacket pocket? Yeah, they’re on this level.)

But then you realize something:

Hey wait a minute, Holden’s just a jerk! A total hypocrite! Screw him! That phony!

And, finally:

Oh, wait. I’m supposed to sympathize with him anyway, just the way he should really grow up and sympathize with everyone he calls phony. Right.

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Joe Hill’s NOS4A2: Creativity, Inscape, and Horror

Joe Hill has a new book out, and it’s filled with references to his father, Stephen King, to David Mitchell, and to Gerard Manley Hopkins (and to others, I’m sure). Although the references to Mitchell are somehow the most surprising to me, it’s the references to Hopkins’s notion of “inscape” that intrigue me the most. (Then again, it’s the use of “inscape” that might explain the references to Mitchell.)

“Inscape”

nos4a2-coverThere are a few characters in the novel who have special creative abilities.  The protagonist, Vic McQueen, can find lost objects or people using her “Shorter Way Bridge,” when she travels over it with a vehicle of some sort (a bike, a motorcycle, etc.). Charlie Manx, the principle villain, uses his own vehicle, a Rolls Royce Wraith, to take children to a place called “Christmasland,” a place in his “thoughtworld” or “world of inscapes” that’s inaccessible to anyone without a special creative inscape or ability.

Another of these characters with special abilities, Maggie Leigh, works in a library and through her extensive reading she discovers that Hopkins’s notion of “inscape” describes  these special creative abilities perfectly. According to Catherine Phillips’s introduction to the Oxford edition of Hopkins’s major works, “Inscape is often used of the characteristic shape of a thing or species. An artist’s analysis, […] it is used for the crucial features that form or communicate the inner character, essence, or ‘personality’ of something; one portrait is preferable to another, for example, because it conveys not just a passing mood but the personality of which that mood is a part.” Inscape is “the result of mental analysis and perception” (xx).

What’s interesting here is the importance of the observer, the necessary interplay between the thing and the artistic observation of the thing, in creating that inscape or essence. The inscape is the truth, yet it is the “result of mental analysis and perception.” Even if that perception or artistic representation is fictional, it’s what captures the real essence. The same is true in NOS4A2, as Maggie explains:

There’s the real world, with all its annoying facts and rules. In the real world, there are things that are true and things that aren’t. Mostly the real world s-s-s-suh-sucks. But everyone also lives in the world inside their own head. An inscape, a world of thought. In a world made of thought—in an inscape—every idea is a fact. Emotions are as real as gravity. Dreams are as powerful as history. Creative people, like writers, and Henry Rollins, spend a lot of their time hanging out in their thoughtworld. S-s-strong creatives, though, can use a knife to cut the stitches between the two worlds, can bring them together. Your bike. My tiles. Those are our knives. (p. 100) [fn. 1]

The point above is the use of creativity by these “strong creatives” to learn about the world around them, to cut into it and get at its essence. And as with Gerard Manley Hopkins, the inscape world, or the thoughtworld, or the idea-world, is real. (“Emotions are real as gravity. Dreams are as powerful as history.”) Later in the novel, Maggie says of Christmasland, “Oh, it’s a real place. Ideas are as real as rocks. Your bridge is real, too, you know” (p. 552). I’m reminded here of Žižek’s virtuality of the Real:

The big Other is a virtual order which exists only through subjects ‘believing’ in it; if, however, a subject were to suspend its belief in the big Other, the subject itself, its ‘reality,’ would disappear. The paradox is that symbolic fiction is constitutive of reality: if we take away the fiction, we lose reality itself. (Less Than Nothing 93).

For Žižek, as for Joe Hill and Gerard Manley Hopkins, ideas constitute reality. Now, this goes far beyond saying, “Well, sometimes really good ideas affect reality.” I mean, that’s just patently obvious, and fairly banal. Who doesn’t understand that? Žižek goes further, saying that ideas constitute reality. The Real is itself virtual. The capital-R Real, the real Real, the Real that is so Real we can’t actually full access it, is virtual (though the Real is still that which “resists” symbolization). In NOS4A2, this means that creativity is important; and fiction is important. The truth is accessed — insofar as it can be accessed — through fiction. In an interview, Hill calls NOS4A2 his “senior thesis on horror fiction.” [fn. 2] Throughout the novel, Hill highlights the importance of fiction itself, and he engages with what [horror] fiction is, or what it’s potential is.

shorter-way-bridge

Vic McQueen, uses her special inscape ability to find things she’s lost, such as a photograph she left at school, or a fancy bracelet left in a restaurant. And what she needs to do this is a “vehicle” and a “bridge.” Sound familiar? It sounds to me like the very definition of a metaphor. When Vic explains her creative ability, she says, “People who could do impossible things if they had the right vehicle” (p. 311; my emphasis; see also p. 408 for the same basic phrasing). Vic’s “vehicle” is a bike that she has to drive headlong over a shaky wooden “bridge” called the “Shorter Way Bridge.” By definition, metaphors are conceptual bridges. They unite two unlike things; they take “the shorter way.” In order to do this they use a “vehicle.” In rhetoric, the “vehicle” of a metaphor is the unlike object to which the comparison is made. For example, if I compared my mistress’ eyes to the sun, the eyes are the “tenor” and the sun is the “vehicle.” [fn. 3] The vehicle is what takes your understanding of a given idea to a new conceptual realm.

Vic’s journeys over her bridge are headlong (sometimes her brakes aren’t even fully working), and she never knows if it’s safe to cross, or where she’s going to end up. Isn’t this the experience of the creative act? You don’t know what you’re going to write before you write it. It’s dangerous. You try something, rushing headlong into it, and you don’t know if it’s going to work, where you’re going to end up, or what you’re going to find.

In her spare time Vic writes a successful children’s book about a character called “Search Engine.” Why “Search Engine”? Because that’s what her Shorter Way Bridge is for: searching for lost objects. And, as above, isn’t this a good way of thinking about what the creative act is like? It’s a search until you realize, Yes, this is what I was looking for, and this word choice or metaphor is just right—I’ve found it, and this finally captures that essence I was looking for, but could not yet articulate. Thomas Carlyle said the Poet says what all men were longing to say. Percy Shelley said the Poet sees the future in the present, and that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. In a weird way, I think Joe Hill is playing in the general area of this tradition; he’s engaging with how the writer or the poet makes that headlong leap using the semantic or metaphoric bridge to find what was already there, just out of our reach, lost then found. Which metaphor, which clearly “unrealistic” intrusion of the supernatural captures the “real” essence?

The Ethics of Horror Fiction in NOS4A2

It’s with Charlie Manx, the villain of the novel, where it becomes clear what Hill is doing with inscape’s relation to horror. Like Vic, Manx uses a creative, metaphoric “vehicle.” Only this time his vehicle is evil—a Rolls Royce “Wraith” with license plate number “NOS4A2.” Manx uses his inscape and his vehicle to drain “unhappiness” from the children he kidnaps, when he brings them to Christmasland, a place where it is Christmas every day. This destroys the children, because when they “can’t understand anything except fun” they’re literally turned into monsters. Maggie says, “Innocence ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, you know. Innocent little kids rip the wings off flies, because they don’t know any better. That’s innocence” (p. 552). Wayne, Vic’s own child, begins doing this to a butterfly when he is kidnapped by Manx. In short, children can be little sociopaths if they don’t understand or care what’s evil, or horrific.[fn. 4] According to NOS4A2, you need both innocence and experience, happiness and unhappiness, in order to be a balanced human being. You need a little bit of horror fiction, says Hill. It’s good for you. Because if you rob someone of their ability to experience horror, such that the horror isn’t horror, then where does that leave you? You’ll be like Wayne, ripping wings off butterflies and not understanding what’s wrong with that.

Although he is a “strong creative,” Manx’s monstrosity stems from his lack of imagination. Christmasland represents the “limits of Charlie Manx’s imagination” (p. 641). He can’t imagine or understand the horror of a situation. Maggie describes Christmasland as Manx’s “idea of endless fun, endless youth, dressed up in a form his dumb little mind can understand” (p. 552). It is this idiocy, this limited imagination that turns Manx into a monster, and allows him to turn the children he kidnaps into monsters in precisely the same kind of way. During the climactic battle, Vic realizes, “Whatever the children had become, whatever [Manx] had done to them, he had done to make them safe, to keep them from being run down by the world. He believed in his own decency with all his heart. So it was with every true monster, Vic supposed” (p. 651).

George Eliot agreed with Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments that “the sympathetic imagination is the foundation of all morality” (Austen 560). And for Eliot, literature fostered this imagination. I suspect that although George Eliot was a staunch Victorian realist, she and Joe Hill are really on the same page. (See also Dickens’s contrast between Fact and Fancy in Hard Times for more of the same idea from another Victorian “realist.”) A weak imagination means an inability to sympathize with others—one fails to imagine oneself in another’s shoes. If that someone else is experiencing something horrific, you won’t sympathize in the proper way. And if you can’t sympathize, you don’t fully understand what’s happening.

Hill explores the effects of a lack of imaginative sympathy further after Manx is defeated. We realize that Manx’s kidnapping victim, Wayne, is still damaged by his experience. Wayne discovers that he takes a kind of sick pleasure in horrific things. When he sees things like a plane crash or news stories about wars in other parts of the world, Wayne feels “charged, jolted by excitement and guilt, as if he were looking at pornography” (p. 677). This is the flipside of horror fiction; it’s exactly what happens when horror loses half its effect, and becomes, instead, a kind of pornography. In the interview I quote from above, Hill notes “I’ve always detested when horror in the late ’90s turned into torture-porn,” because such works “failed at accomplishing the aims of horror.” In other words, they left out the most important part, the ethical dimension of horror. This is also the hardest part, because it requires real imagination. You have to imagine yourself in the shoes of the victim in order for the horror to really hit home, in order for you to fully understand it.

The references to David Mitchell, especially those to Jacob de Zoet, make a little bit more sense in this context. Even though it’s set at the turn of the nineteenth century, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is very much about finding a moral compass in the modern world; so too is NOS4A2. The generational conflicts, and especially the long echoing effects of individual actions — which I’ve talked less about here — also helps explain the references to Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The thinking about the nature of creativity, and the ways in which the artistic process is an encounter with the New, a headlong rush over a shaky bridge into the unknown, seems one of the most important ways in which NOS4A2 engages with the work of Hill’s father, Stephen King; I’m reminded of the latter books in the Dark Tower series, in which King often talks about how he doesn’t know what’s going to come next, and can’t control the story as much as he’d like. (The author is just a channel for Gan or whatever.)

I find it refreshing to see horror that wrestles with the problems of its own genre, and with fiction more generally. I agree with Wayne Booth that there is a “rhetoric of fiction.” Every novel takes a stance, posits an implied author, puts you into a subject position, regarding this or that theme or ethical dilemma. This is not true only of propaganda fiction–all fiction does this, and must do this. The really good novels question or complicate their own stance, or the stance of their entire genre, as well as the nature of how such stances come to be. To my mind, NOS4A2 succeeds in this endeavor.

Footnotes

[1] The reference to the knife reminds me of Carol Ann Duffy’s “Little Red Cap,” in which the speaker discovers that the poet-wolf she’s sleeping with “howls the same old song at the moon, year in, year out, / season after season, same rhyme, same reason,” so she ventures out on her own, and uses an axe (read: a pen) to deconstruct the world around her: “I took an axe / to a willow to see how it wept. I took an axe to a salmon / to see how it leapt. I took an axe…” (lines 35-8).

[2] Joe Hill interview at the AV Club.

[3] You probably shouldn’t compare your mistress’s eyes to the sun, though. Shakespeare basically already called you out on how lame this is.

[4] The Onion agrees: Kids are sociopaths.

Other References

Austen, Zelda. “Why Feminist Critics Are Angry with George Eliot.” College English 37.6 (1976): 549-61. Print.

Hill, Joe. NOS4A2: A Novel. New York: William Morrow, 2013. Print.

Phillips, Catherine. “Introduction.” Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. xv-xxxv. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. London: Verso, 2012. Print.

 

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John Grisham’s Calico Joe

I finished up reading John Grisham’s Calico Joe last night. It was a very quick read.

Was it good? Yeah, it was pretty good. But what struck me is that it was just so goddamn *readable*. I bought the book because I had a flat tire on Sunday, and I desperately needed something to read in Canadian Tire while I waited for them to replace the wheel, after I’d hobbled in on the spare. Normally, I’d have no desire to read a book featuring baseball, but at Shopper’s I didn’t have a lot of options. Yet Calico Joe was actually very difficult to put down.

If I describe Grisham as *eminently readable,* am I plagiarizing something? I don’t know, but boy, Grisham sure is eminently readable. I had the same reaction reading Grisham’s Playing for Pizza, though, ironically, I actually didn’t finish that one. I think I will now, and I might even try his really popular books (The Firm, The Pelican Brief, etc., y’know, the ones that feature “lawyers and stuff,” and were made into movies), even though, again, the genre is not my cup of tea. At all. But I still want to read more, because I respect that skill.

It’s easy to slot Grisham in with various other airplane fiction fluff (Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, et al.). But actually writing a good book that’s impossible to put down is a skill to be respected. And I think Grisham does it better, if only because — of the books I’ve read — he doesn’t rely on traditional suspense techniques. Calico Joe is hard to put down, but there is no global conspiracy, no promise of either riches combined with dire risks of death for the protagonists, and no traditional McGuffin. You keep reading because you want to see Joe and Warren Tracey meet. That’s the hook. And by itself, who cares? Two fake baseball players meeting? Boring. But the novel itself makes the hook what it is. And I did care. That ain’t easy.

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Stephen King’s The Dark Tower: a re-read, hazy thoughts, and the Virtual

I’m re-reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (so I know the ending), and so far I’ve been very impressed.

Having re-read the earlier ones again (I’m on the sixth book, Song of Susannah, right now), some of the things that I was on the fence about, and the things that I know other people absolutely hated — I’m looking at you, number nineteen, Doctor Doom Wolves and Harry Potter “Sneetches,” and certain intertextual and metatextual cameos I know are coming up — now seem a lot better, and a lot more coherent, what with the internal logic established by the series.

Speaking of “internal logic established by the series,” I think internal logic is an appropriate term for at least a big part of what the “Dark Tower” itself stands for. The internal logic of a work of fiction, or perhaps a body of work. What “holds it together,” so to speak. The focus on “19” relates to King’s body of work being such a product of its time(s), the latter half of the 1900s, culminating in 19-99.  This again relates to the different times from which Roland pulls his ka-tet, to the breakdown of time being experienced in Mid-World, to the heavy focus on dialect and its relation to place and time, and to the role of a “gunslinger,” or the figure of the gunslinger, in a world that has moved on. Moved on from what? Other stories, other genres. There’s obviously a big focus on stories, genre and their relation to history, and to intertextuality.

For example, I just read the bit with Trudy Damascus in Song of Susannah. Trudy doesn’t believe in UFOs or fantastic stories, until she sees Susannah/Mia show up out of thin air, magically. The scenes focalized through Trudy make constant references to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge ascribes Marley’s ghostly presence to indigestion, a bit of underdone potato. The point here, with both A Christmas Carol and with the episode with Trudy, is that it doesn’t matter what *really* happened, in a way. What matters is that whether Scrooge’s or Trudy’s experience did or did not happen, they are fundamentally changed, forever. Trudy will never again scoff at people who believe in fantastic stories and UFOs; Scrooge will never look at Christmas the same way again, whether it was a bad dream brought on by indigestion or not. Even fiction has real power, in the “real” world. Our lives are, as Slavoj Žižek would say, governed precisely by that which is virtual, immaterial: fictional narratives we’ve absorbed so deep into our bones that we don’t even know we know them.

Many of my thoughts are very hazy right now, but I’ll have to write more on it, because I’m now thinking there is a whole lot going on.

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“Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang

I just read "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang. You can find it here: Stories of Your Life and Others. The Kindle version is $7.69.

It's really good. It's reminded me (somewhat) of that Star Trek: The Next Generation Episode, "Darmok," where the universal translator doesn't work quite right because the alien language's referential function is kind of on a different wavelength than our own. In order to say, for example, something along the lines of, "Darn, this isn't working," the alien keeps saying, "Shaka, when the walls fell," referring to an historical event. In order to say, "You [Picard] and I [Captain Dathan] should fight together against a common enemy," the alien says, "Darmok and Jalad, at Tanagra!" which is also an actual historical event involving people called, presumably, Darmok and Jalad. The episode resulted in this neat-o t-shirt:

(Credit to SA forums poster "Kirk," I think…?)

"Darmok" is probably one of the best TNG episodes.

Anyways, the Ted Chiang story is even better. (Some spoilers about the scifi and linguistic theory in the story.) "Story of Your Life" deals a whole bunch with semiotics. Like, what would a language be like if it came from a culture that understood the time-space continuum in a manner completely different from our own? I.e., if it came from a culture that experienced all events simultaneously?

Dr. Louise Banks is struck by the fact that, of all the math Earth has tried communicating with the aliens, they seem best able to communicate Fermat's principle of least time, which is, y'know, a pretty weird principle, because it means that light that hits water seems to "know" beforehand at which angle to travel in order to hit the water in just such a way that it travels in the least time. Eventually, Banks realizes that the aliens experience time non-sequentially. So how do they communicate?

Chiang (or the character-narrator, Dr. Louise Banks) posits that communication as such would be performative. Chiang basically lists the standard three examples that J.L. Austin gives of speech-act theory. Of the three, the one that illustrates the idea best is the one that's always given: we go through the ceremony of a wedding, knowing full well that it's going to end with "I do," but we still have to go through the full performance in order to make the ceremony "effective." We go through the motions to make those motions a reality.

This has thematic implications because of the side-plot relating to Dr. Louise Banks' daughter. The story uses the Sapir-Whorf hypthesis, which is the idea that the structure of a language structures thought. Steven Pinker doesn't like it. (The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is different from what I call the Bashir-Worf hypothesis: the idea that learning to speak Klingon without the universal translator make you more attractive to Dax symbiotes.) Would we have children if we knew the future, and that future wasn't always good? If we knew the future, would we perform the motions of events in order to make them a reality? And, in a classic time-travel paradox kind of way, wouldn't [enough] foreknowledge of the future us to act on it?

Chiang's "Story of Your Life" is excellent because it ties together seamlessly the high-concept science fiction with the emotional implications it explores, in a way much more resonant than a lot of sci fi short stories I've read. (I've read a fair share of golden age sci fi, but I haven't read an absolute tonne, and I readily admit that there's a lot of new stuff of which I am ignorant. I mostly read Gardner Dozoi's Year's Best anthologies.) I'll be reading the rest of Chiang's collection (there are seven more stories, I think) and then, probably, I'll try writing a review on Amazon or something. Writing Amazon reviews might be a New Year's resolution. Maybe. I don't know yet.

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Total Recall (dir. Paul Verhoeven)

Boy, Total Recall (1990) is actually a lot weirder than I remember it. This is probably because, as a kid, I often caught bits and pieces of it on TV, so I rarely (if ever) watched it straight through, and whatever I did watch was an edited-for-TV version.

The mixture of Philip K. Dick-style high-concept sci fi / philosophy (ancient alien civilizations! questions about memory and selfhood!), with the Verhoeven-style portrayal of corporate culture and greed in all its vulgarity, makes for quite an odd film. The violent action sequences and casual obscenities are self-consciously over-the-top, grotesque and hilarious (I mean, just look at that guy’s gleeful, orgasmic face in the screenshot), which is all well and good, but it’s weird that such self-conscious violence and obscenities are in this film, now that I think about it. It’s like a mix of Minority Report and Commando.

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The Grey (dir. Joe Carnahan)

The Grey (2012) is far better than I would have thought. The quote on the DVD box — “Terrifically exciting! Hold on tight! It’s a true call of the wild!” — really doesn’t do justice to the film. You know how when you finally get around to seeing the original Rocky (1976), and you discover that it’s actually a really somber, thoughtful film? The Grey is kind of like that, only along with being somber and thoughtful, somehow it’s also extremely ****ing tense, with explosions of violence and fear spread throughout.

If I had to sum it up (I don’t have to, but I will, I guess), I’d say it’s about how we deal with death: our own inevitable death and what we’ll leave behind, the death of loved ones, the death of those we barely know, and what death is, itself, as a concept. And a movie about death is, by definition, going to be a movie about life.

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Some audiobooks and other audio stuff

Simon Prebble’s reading of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is quite good. I’ve been listening to it on my runs and while I’m doing mindless tasks like making dinner or cleaning.

The Literary Theory course by Paul Fry from Yale (on iTunesU) is also enjoyable. I’ve been listening to undergraduate literature courses and it’s actually quite pleasant. Half the time you’re sorta nodding and thinking, “Yep, yep, mm hm, that’s definitely a thing that’s true,” and the other half you’re sorta thinking, “Oh yeah, I guess that’s also true. Neat.”

Speaking of undergraduate courses, Tim Morton has put up a bunch of them on his blog. There are also some of his courses available on iTunesU. I turned the courses on his blog into iTunes playlists and set the options for each mp3 to “remember playback position,” which accomplishes pretty much the same thing as iTunesU or turning them into an audiobook.

Listening to literature courses is a lot easier to justify than listening to books about magic in regency England, but, like, whatever, man. Reading Susanna Clarke makes me want to read Ursula K Le Guin. I haven’t read her since grade 5 (or 6?), but now I sorta get the idea of magic as a metaphor for all the weird things that language does, and I want to think about that some more.

I also listened to 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami recently, but I didn’t really like it. I thought both the story and the (quite dramatized) readings were a bit overwrought. There are several scenes where a character cries, and cries and cries and cries, or she weeps, she wept for this, and she wept for that, she wept for all the blah blah blah, and all I can think is, gee, it’s nice that this character is going through this huge emotional catharsis, but, well, I’m just not feeling anything. I’ve felt much more powerful emotions from reading J.D. Salinger short stories where everything is very understated. (“A Girl I Knew” is still my favourite short story, ever. It’s too bad that it is now pretty hard to find.)

The only other Murakami I’ve read is What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which is non-fiction, and I thought was much better. Every review of 1Q84 I’ve seen also seems to indicate that 1Q84 isn’t as good as Murakami’s other stuff, so I’m not going to write him off.

However, I’m running out of credits on Audible so I don’t know what I’m going to listen to next. I have to make it count.

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