Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 99: Mark Twain, Hunting the Deceitful Turkey (#47)

Mark Twain, "Hunting the Deceitful Turkey" (1906) from Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1891–1910:

A short piece about Twain's childhood experience of hunting, including an epic battle with a turkey who faked injury to lure Twain away from its kids. Although the piece has an obvious holiday appeal around Thanksgiving time; and though there was an important reason for putting this out in the year when his full autobiography was published; I find this story amusing and not much more. There's some nice self-derision about his poor shooting skills; and there's this one incredibly dark moment when Twain notes that the best turkey call is created from a turkey leg bone--
There is nothing that furnishes a perfect turkey-call except that bone. Another of Nature's treacheries, you see. She is full of them; half the time she doesn't know which she likes best--to betray her chid or protect it.
But besides that it's just hyperbole and understatement--his two classic comic modes--about hunting a turkey.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 98: Mary Church Terrell, What It Means to be Colored in the Capital of the United States (#55)

Mary Church Terrell, "What It Means to be Colored in the Capital of the United States" (1907) from American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton:

One of my favorite moments in Charles Chesnutt's Marrow of Tradition--oh, who am I kidding, the entire book is full of favorite moments. But one part that always cuts me deep is when a black man walks through mob-controlled Wellington and gets stopped by a bunch of white guys who think they're the law now--now and forever, I should say, since mob rule merely puts into effect what was more or less always true, according to these white supremacists. But that's not the part that gets me. (Although, after the Trayvon Martin case, I think we might want to reread Chesnutt and think about the problem he noted over a century ago.) No, the part that gets me is this:
The man who last stopped him was a well-known Jewish merchant. A Jew—God of Moses!—had so far forgotten twenty centuries of history as to join in the persecution of another oppressed race!
And so when I read Mary Church Terrell's speech and pamphlet on the contemporary problems of being black in America in 1907, I wasn't surprised to see an instance of a shop owner firing an excellent employee because she was black and reading
The proprietor of this store was a Jew, and I felt that it was particularly cruel, unnatural and cold blooded for the representative of one oppressed and persecuted race to deal so harshly and unjustly with a member of another.
In fact, since Chesnutt and Terrell are writing about the same issue in almost the same time and place, there's lots of connections and parallels: besides the "even the Jews are no help," there's the "everyone pays attention to race and no one pays attention to class and education" moment; there's the "our money isn't any good here"; there's the "other races get treated fairly"; and, above all, there's the "with so much race-mixing, what does 'black' even mean?"

Actually, I think Terrell might have the best formulation of that last problem, noting that the color line is enforced even against a man "who looks more like his paternal ancestors who fought for the lost cause than his grandmothers who were the victims of the peculiar institution"--which is a nice reminder of the violence against black women tied up with the gentility of southern slavery.

As rhetoric, Terrell hits hard on the phrase "Not long ago," reminding the listener that all of these moments of discrimination are recent (in addition to making no sense and being pointlessly cruel, especially to children whose understanding of race is simultaneous with their understanding of their exile from parks and theaters). It occasionally gets repetitive, but that's part of the rhetorical work here: to show the commonplaceness of this discrimination, which, as Terrell notes, is even more hypocritical in the capital of a country devoted to liberty and equality.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 97: David H. Keller, The Jelly-Fish (#157)

David H. Keller, "The Jelly-Fish" (1929) from American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps:

The LoA page for this story hits a few important points about Keller: he was a doctor, served in WWI, dealt with shell-shock, wrote all his life but only later started to send stories out, and has some reservations about technological optimism. For more on Keller, see the SF Encyclopedia and Fantasy Encyclopedia entries, which has a lot more info on him and (as usual for those publications) some analysis. There's his Charles Atlas physical education non-fiction! There's his occult detective series! There's his weird sexual hang-ups!

All of which makes Keller sound like a fascinating subject to study; but maybe not the most interesting pulp author to reread nowadays. Curiously, both encyclopedia entries mention a few of his works, but neither mention "The Jelly-Fish." Which is no surprise after we read this rather silly story: on a research yacht studying micro-organisms in the ocean, the hated and smug professor gives a speech about how everything is possible with the will and he will demonstrate this by shrinking down to microscopic jelly-fish size--at which point he gets eaten by a jelly-fish. There's really no surprise there and no shock. The story mostly leaves one with the desire to chuckle. The mad scientist is so over-the-top mad, the action is so ridiculous ("by my will I can change into a microscopic version of myself and not worry about, you know, drowning in the drop of water, but I'm helpless when confronted by a jellyfish"?).

That said, we could put this in the long line of microscopic fiction, from Fitz-James O'Brien's brilliant "The Diamond Lens" to Richard Matheson's unrealistic but thematically interesting The Incredible Shrinking Man. And I wonder if you could do something like this today? Or should we leap over the small scale here and just write Jelly-fishnado?

The New New Thing: Paolo Bacigalupi, "Pop Squad"; "Yellow Card Man"; "Softer"; "Pump Six"; "Small Offerings"

I finally finished Paolo Bacigalupi's Pump Six and Other Stories; so this omnibus post will cover the final five stories and any general comments I want to make. I previously posted on Pump Six stories here, here, here, here, and here.

The last five stories I'll cover today are

  • "Pop Squad" (2006): in a future where humans are functionally immortal and procreation is illegal, some people go off their immortality meds so they can have kids; our protagonist is one of the cops whose job it is to track down these women and kill the kids. Bonus: people seem to live in a jungle that was once the tundra, complete now with lots monkeys.
  • "Yellow Card Man" (2006): once a rich man in Malaysia, the protagonist was forced out by nationalist riots and now tries to survive as one of the yellow card men (refugee immigrants), avoiding the white uniformed Environment Ministry cops/thugs. This takes place in the Wind-Up Girl universe; and is a novella in length.
  • "Softer" (2007): a man kills his wife, thinks his life is over, but when he gets away it, decides to rededicate himself to really living his life. The only non-science fiction story in the collection.
  • "Pump Six" (2008): reminiscent of The Marching Morons and Idiocracy, an average man tries to save the city of idiots by keeping the sewage system working. Bonus: the man and his wife are trying to have a baby, hoping the environmental pollutants don't give them an idiot; and the city is overrun with these monkey-like idiot hominids. 
  • "Small Offerings" (2007): in a polluted world, a doctor wants to leach the pollutants from her body to have a normal baby, which is a better alternative to having a dead baby just to clear the pollutants for a good baby.
"Softer" is an anomaly, focusing more on the character's thought processes than on any of the environmental factors that he's dealing with. I want to perform some literary analytic prestidigitation, where I turn the story inside out and show that the pattern is the same as his others... but it really doesn't seem all that similar.

All the other stories share a real interest in environmental/ecological issues, including pollutants. Whereas the protagonists of "The People of Sand and Slag" were physically impervious, normal humans in these stories tend to be undone by their environments. (Or by their parents' environments in the case of the idiot kids and troglodytes of "Pump Six.")

"Pop Squad" might be a slight outlier here, since what people are undone by are their own inbuilt urges to have kids. Although they are living in a post-climate change world, the problem isn't that; the problem is that they have two genetic imperatives warring: the desire to live and the desire to pass on one's genes. The environmental issues seems secondary. 

"Yellow Card Man," "Pump Six," and "Small Offerings" all tell the story of someone fighting the environment, whether that environment includes dangerous people; idiots and pollutants; or pollutants.

OK, fine, I told you what they're about; but how good are they? "Yellow Card Man" is clearly the standout here, not as a story--it's an almost structureless meander through the life and incidents of an old man--but as a world that he's building. It's hard to say since I've already read another Wind-Up story and know that was the world for his novel; but that world seems the richest and most interesting. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 96: Herman Melville, The Fiddler (#141)

Herman Melville, "The Fiddler" (1854) from Herman Melville: Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Billy Budd, & Uncollected Prose:

If Twitter had existed in the 1890s, the general response to news of Herman Melville's 1891 death would have been "He was still alive? I thought he died years ago." Honestly, I studied 19th-century literature and I'm still surprised he died in the 90s since so much of his famous work was in the 40s and 50s. And I say this as someone whose favorite Melville novel might be his last: The Confidence-Man, 1857.

But though Melville dropped off the list of famous authors, his career sealed by poor sales and negative reviews (like the 1852 review titled "Herman Melville Crazy"), he did keep writing and even got a few short pieces published in the big-name magazines. Which brings us to "The Fiddler," a short piece claimed to be by Melville in his wife's memoranda; and which seems to deal with some of the issues he was dealing with in real life. To wit: "The Fiddler" starts with a poet who has gotten bad reviews and follows him as he sees popular but dumb entertainment--the clown at the circus; and genius but obscure entertainment--the fiddler who was once famous but is now happy just giving fiddling lessons and playing common songs.

So... yeah. Unlike many of my favorite Melville pieces, this doesn't quite reach the heights of weirdness of, say, "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" or "Bartleby" or even "I and My Chimney." It has the balance--or ambivalence--that we can find in lots of Melville: we may both feel bad for and despise the egotistic poet at the beginning; and we might pity and celebrate his final choice to pick up the fiddle instead of the poem. (We might as well ask why he doesn't pick up the clown makeup, since the story seems to indicate some happiness even there.)

But at the end of the day, this doesn't leave a very strong impression since it lacks Melville's humor and wordplay.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 95: Harvey Shapiro, War Stories (#177)

Harvey Shapiro, "War Stories" (1966) from Poets of World War II:

"War Stories" does double-duty, both as a poem and as a reason to explain why the LoA put out Poets of World War II: in the intro, editor Harvey Shapiro explained that he wanted to counter the idea that World War I was singular in its poetic output. (Also, the LoA page notes that this volume was a commercial success, with 18,000 in print, which makes me enormously sad.)

As a poem, "War Stories" is both different from and similar to Edward Fields's war poem from the same volume: there's the same tone through much of the poem, presenting just the facts in straightforward sentences. But rather than step-by-step recounting of just another crazy incident of war, Shapiro jumps around in time, telling about three-four incidents in his life--training, R&R, going on a mission--all revolving in some way about media and the stories we tell.

In the first part, Shapiro talks about his childhood of comic strips and radio serials, Popeye and Buck Rogers fighting for right; and after an interlude of re-use in pornography, they come back as marching songs during his training. So there's childish stories we tell (contrasted with his dad's political beliefs, the fact that he doesn't get Hearst papers except for Sunday's edition, for the comics) and there's the re-use/reality.

In the second part, we again get that theme of story-telling vs. reality: in an Italian bar, a Brit tells Shapiro that the Italians are a conquered people, which sure sounds great and historical but doesn't actually match what Shapiro sees on the ground. So when Shapiro notes "I was part of that sergeant’s fictive world," we should read it both ways: "I was part" but that world is "fictive."

In the final part, Shapiro is on a mission to bomb Germany; and unlike the other sections, where Shapiro pulls together multiple images or stories, this section is purely given over to the repeated experience of the bombing run. Which culminates in the final (and only for this section) mention of media:
How to believe all that happened,
as in a movie, a tv drama, or some other life.
Check out the flatness of that--movie, tv, other life--as if life was just another sort of story we tell. And after all that confusion about history and story, who can say otherwise?

Bonus: What's up with Shapiro's "little friend, little friend" interjection? Is it a reference to Randall Jarrell's 1945 book of poetry of that name?

Friday, July 26, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 94: Countee Cullen, The Ballad of the Brown Girl (#166)

Countee Cullen, "The Ballad of the Brown Girl" (1927) from Countee Cullen: Collected Poems:

This pdf will only be available until August 2013, so if you like ballads about death--Nick Cave, I'm talking to you--go read this now. Because it's very easy to read this as a simple, old-fashioned murder ballad: man loves one girl, but another girl is rich, so his mom tells him to marry the rich girl; then, at the wedding, when the man fails to protect the rich girl (now wife) from the beloved girl's insult, the rich girl kills the beloved; and then the man kills the rich girl and himself. The hero, of course, is the Conquerer Worm.

That's one way to read it--not the Conquerer Worm, but that it's a typical murder ballad. But there is another, which is as a race murder ballad. While I kept making the distinction between rich girl and loved girl, the poem makes the distinction between the fair girl and the dark girl (or the brown girl). And yes, it is easy to imagine an old English ballad making that distinction; but fair vs. dark takes on somewhat different meaning in America--especially when written by W. E. B. Dubois's son-in-law. (Temporary son-in-law, but still.) When the poem mentions "blue grass," it's hard not to think of the American south (even if the dude is named Lord Thomas). So the final disposition of the bodies--white woman at the husband's side, brown woman at his feet--can be read in either way: true love being given pride of place after death; or the black mistress taking second place to the white woman who should've been the wife.

Yet I almost find this poem more interesting because of the arguments among the black arts community about what it would mean to make "black art." Cullen takes an old style story--even saying in the subtitle that this is old--and gives it a few twists to make it speak to a racially divided nation; whereas Langston Hughes is out arguing that black art needs to speak to a different tradition; while George Schuyler is out arguing that "black art" is less about being black and more about economic class conditions.

Short Story Read-Aloud, Week 20


E. Lily Yiu, "The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees": Told at sort of a macro level with a bunch of episodes: some wasps make maps, get evicted by humans; the wasps start a new colony, conquer and enslave some bees; some servant bees learn anarchism from the wasps and start their own colony; the humans come back and kill off the wasps; the bees who lived under the wasps have to figure out their own way; while the anarchist bees die off.

Escape Artists (Escape PodPodcastlePseudopod

Eric Czuleger, "Immortal L.A.": Something about vampires. The audio level was pretty low and indistinct, so I couldn't hear the story.

Lightspeed and Nightmare 

Megan Arkenberg, "The Huntsman": Which Huntsman? Just kidding--it's another fairy-tale-inflected/rewritten, a sort of modernization take-off of Snow White's Huntsman character. Frankly, I didn't see the point of this story: the huntsman isn't a very interesting character and I'm not sure what themes this revision is meant to explore.

Cast of Wonders (Protecting Project PulpTales to TerrifyStarship Sofa)

Martin Mundt, "The Day I Didn’t Meet Christopher Walken": A humorous story about the author getting caught in a robbery at a convenience store--at which point Christopher Walken comes in, absorbs all the attention by acting weird, and dismembers the robbers. Would've been funnier if shorter, but a nice mix of comedy, horror, and surreality.

Nina Kiriki Hoffman, "My Tears Have Been My Meat": An abused woman poisons her husband, but despite the warnings of her dead daughter, the woman stays around long enough to see the abuser (powered by tears and blood) rise from the dead. The soul-sucking zombie might be a little hoary, but it's enlivened (ba-dum-ching) by being tied to something serious, like abuse.

Kim Newman, "Illimitable Dominion": Another light story--though a little long--about a guy in the 60's with a chimp who wants to get Edgar Allan Poe's "Rue Morgue" made into a movie; and who inadvertently kicks off a Poe craze. A nice blending of real movie history with some alternate history.

Stephen Volk, "After the Ape": After King Kong, Ann Darrow is distraught and drunk; and invites a waiter in the hotel to visit with her for a while. Both have wildly disparate ideas about what's going on. A fine parallel tale/unofficial sequel idea, but a little draggy.

Tim Powers, "The Way Down the Hill": A secret society of immortals gets reincarnated whenever they die; except they do so by pushing out other souls into the dark void. So when a few immortals try to start a conspiracy, the protagonist exposes them and says it's time for them to start dying normal deaths.

Matt Hughes, "A Passion Ploy": Alien artifact fascinates people in the criminal underground; turns out to be alien seedpod that wants to plant itself in people. Entertaining voice with interesting killer plant twist.

Eric Taylor, "Kali": A man's fiancee is under the guardianship of a widow who is in thrall to--gasp!--a Hindu. There's some very awkward and amateur exposition here--like the fiancee explaining her history to her beau. Not worth it.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 93: Bret Harte, The Legend of Monte del Diablo (#132)

Bret Harte, "The Legend of Monte del Diablo" (1863) from American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps:

Do people still read Bret Harte? As one my fields in grad school was 19th-century American literature, I know I read him; and I feel like his name comes up in some high school attempts to find fun older literature. But, by contrast, he doesn't have his own LoA book; and he might be the first named person I've run across that I can say that about. I mean, you expect Twain to have some books; you don't expect John Hay to have an LoA entry; and Bret Harte, well, he could go either way.

After reading this story, I feel less like Bret Harte needs his own collection. First, he only has a handful of stories that are his best and most famous--“The Luck of the Roaring Camp” and “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” both mentioned in the LoA page. Second, this story is less interesting than those; it's presented as a legend for why Mt. Diablo (outside San Francisco) got its name, which, surprise, has to do with the devil tempting a good monk during the time of the Spanish missions. It's not very interesting, I think; and for once, I seem to be on the same page as the Atlantic's editor, who said it "failed to interest." (Though he still ran it.)

The main story may not be super interesting, but there are some interesting grace notes here. There's a lot of landscape description, which doesn't move the story very much, but does, in some small way, set up the disappointment of the monk: here he is, traveling in this pristine wilderness, thinking about saving the souls of all the Indians, when the Devil gives him a glimpse of the wilderness-destroying industry that will come from the East and that will kick out the Spanish missions. Well, can't argue with that since it, you know, happened. But I also can't really get into the struggle. Do I prefer conquistador gentility or Anglo industrial rapine? That's like reading a story called "The Tiger or the Tiger?"--I can't really see any upside here.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 92: Bettye Rice Hughes, A Negro Tourist in Dixie (#107)

Bettye Rice Hughes, "A Negro Tourist in Dixie" (1962) from Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941–1963:

I never get tired of hearing the argument that racism is over, which often goes something like this: because outright expressions of racism are looked down on or even illegal, everyone treats white and black people alike. Well, black Bettye Rice Hughes went for a bus ride through the South after inter-state segregation was outlawed, and she knows that racism isn't just about the law.

Hughes's short article summarizes ruthlessly, fitting six weeks of Southern bus travel into six pages, with telling anecdotes from various stops and general observations: the "White" and "Colored" parts of the restroom signs are covered up; white and black people still look oddly at the black woman who walks in the white people's restaurant. Some of the places she goes to solve this problem by having the one black worker coming to serve her; although my favorite anecdote might be the white waitress who agrees with some white woman that it's a shame to have to serve black people, and then, when she's alone with Hughes, starts up a totally normal conversation about where she's from, where she's going, etc.

Which makes it sound like the waitress is just someone trying to get along--she's not so big a racist that she'll object to serving Hughes; but she's not so much a protestor that she'll argue with the white patron. But we'll never really know what she is thinking, which is clear in Hughes's account for everyone she meets.

And that's the second-biggest trouble that Hughes seems to face, if we're counting the "subtle" racism of slight hostility and chilliness as her first-biggest trouble. (Again: according to a certain type of person, that doesn't count as racism since it doesn't involve the n-word.) That is, she gets through her experiment safely--but she's not really sure why. How bad is racism in the south after the Freedom Riders and the attacks by white supremacists? It's not good and more work needs to be done; but when we can't read other people's minds, it's hard to know what work to do.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 91: Sarah Orne Jewett, Tom’s Husband (#108)

Sarah Orne Jewett, "Tom’s Husband" (1882) from Sarah Orne Jewett: Novels & Stories:

If you thought the last Sarah Orne Jewett piece was an anomaly--you know, the one with the aged sea captain who spent half his days thinking he was his own sister and (cross-)dressing like her--here's your debunking. In "Tom's Husband," the gender issues are so up front and center that SHE TITLED THE PIECE "TOM'S HUSBAND"! Really, how much more gender-bending can you get in 1882?

But this is 1882 and while some famous women writers might have "Boston marriages," things don't go so well for Tom and Mary when they swap positions. See, although Tom likes taking care of the house and Mary has a head for business, they can't really keep it up with her running the mill and him running the house; and the last few pages returns the situation to a sort of status quo, which must've been very relaxing to the Atlantic readers who usually have status on their minds.

Jewett gets in a few gems of jabs in, as when Tom wonders if women feel circumscribed by the narrowness their home lives, just like he does. (His answer: women are made differently, so probably not.) And without treading over into fantasy, Jewett notes how the mill under Mary steadily prospers, getting better every year. So we might put this down as an argument for the social construction of gender, disguised as a sketch about a semi-happy family. That's clearly the main thrust of the piece.

But, as usual, there are little side thrusts that complicate (or reinforce in odd ways) the main thrust. For instance, we hear that Mary is good at business and Tom is sort of idle and home-minded--but then we also hear that Tom might be that way partly due to a childhood accident. Why do we need that reason for how people are? We don't get any such reason for Mary. When Tom is placed in the "wife" position (home-caretaker), he develops a rather un-wifely hobby of coin-collecting. Is that the retention of some money-minded male-marked and -dominated activity? And/or is it a reminder that Tom at his most wifely still retains a lot more freedom than any wife? And when we get the reimposition of the status quo, what we actually get is Tom and Mary leaving for a vacation, a sudden break with how things were. And what does it mean for a story to begin with the promise of a marriage and end with the abandonment of the home?

Monday, July 22, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 90: Henry David Thoreau, A Winter Walk (#103)

Henry David Thoreau, "A Winter Walk" (1843) from Thoreau: Collected Essays and Poems:

Reading Thoreau's "A Winter Walk," much of which is told in first person plural--we did x and we see y--I can't help think of dialogue from Mad Magazine:
The Lone Ranger: “Looks like we’re in trouble, Tonto.”
Tonto: “What you mean ‘we,’ white man?”
I have friends who like Thoreau; and there are even parts of his writing that I like. For one, there's a real environmental/observational bent to his writing, the sort of attempt that is carried forward by the John Muirs and the Mary Austins. When he notes that winter is a good time for observation because everything is frozen where it is--as opposed to being chopped up and brought into the lab or study--we can see the environmental thread that runs through the Transcendentalists.

And yet, this long long long long long long piece does not rehabilitate Thoreau in my eyes. Sure, there's the environmental observation. But then so much of the piece isn't ecological, but romantic. We hear that "Probably if our lives were more conformed to nature, we should not need to defend ourselves against her heats and colds" and that "There is a slumbering subterranean fire in nature which never goes out, and which no cold can chill." Some of that Romance moves me if we think about it as metaphor: living things may slow or die in winter but life goes on.

But most of the time, that Thoreau bend towards romance merely obscures the real material issues. No matter how much he says "we" and "us" and "our," I keep thinking about his "winter is great" next to Richard Adams's note from Watership Down that people like winter because they are separated from the cold and hunger that the animals go through--and, Adams adds, that the poor go through. This is the huge material issue that Thoreau almost always fails to account for. Walking through the winter woods may be fine and good if you don't have a family that depends on you; and it can be even easier if you've got some older women in your family who cook and clean for you.

Finally, I laughed out loud when Thoreau idiotically notes
The good Hebrew revelation takes no cognizance of all this cheerful snow. Is there no religion for the temperate and frigid zones?
I don't know, I guess Thoreau is so busy worshipping the trees that he can't bother to learn about German and Scandinavian and British Isle mythologies, most of which would not really match up with Thoreau's idea of winter as a calm and equalizing force. For the rest of the world, winter is about starvation and cold, but if your aunt is coming out to your cabin to cook for you, I guess you might not realize that.

Some thoughts on Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim is not an original film--and it is not trying to be. The big premise--giant mecha fight giant monsters--is marked from the opening prologue/voice-over as derivative: the monsters are "kaiju," just like Godzilla and all the giant monsters in Japanese movies (which, truth be told, probably have some connection with 1950s American B-movies); and the giant mecha are "jaeger," which, frankly, is a word I first learned from Battletech.

On top of that, the character arc isn't original: we have the brash kid who doesn't listen to orders and has a prior trauma to overcome; we have the stern father-figure military commander who gives the requisite speeches (don't touch me; we're going to save the world); we have the beloved daughter-figure who just wants to prove herself. (Classic Freudian and a very common character-structure in SF: son-figure has to displace father-figure to love daughter-figure.) We have one over-talky mad scientist and one over-weird mad scientist. We have the brash young rival. We have A FREAKING DOG. (For reference for that, see everything ever made, but especially Cowboy Bebop.)

The plot, well, you know the drill: the alien invasion is getting worse and our only hope is to collapse the portal. (The most obvious and recent parallel is with the Avengers, which features another person in power armor seemingly sacrificing himself to deliver an atomic bomb into the enemy world.) There's occasional little jokes, including "giant robot fist crashes through building, taps desk only hard enough to make the Newton's cradle start tapping" and "let's check his pulse ::shoots up monster body:: no pulse."

And yet, it all kind of works. It didn't blow me away, but it kept my attention, and there were little details that I really liked. For instance, as many people have noted, some of the names here are capital R Ridic: Stacker Pentecost, Raleigh (like "rally," like "rally the troops") Becket, Hercules Hansen, etc. But then, when Hannibal Chau introduces himself, he notes that he took his name from his favorite historical figure and his second favorite Szechuan place in Brooklyn. And while we focus on the giant robots, there's a real industrial, lived-in quality to these spaces. (There's also a tiny shout-out to pollution and climate change: the aliens are invading because we've practically terraformed the place for them.)

So while it isn't really an original film, it does well what it sets out to do, which is mostly be a shout-out to a sort of 80s anime/cartoon show, complete with delightful international stereotypes on the team. I think we all want to know the real story behind the Russian death-metal pilots. Similarly, the idea of "drift"--the combination of minds that lets two pilots safely control one of the jaegers--isn't really original, but it allows Guillermo Del Toro to invade people's minds and give little glimpses of their character-forming moments, either as brief moment (crazy doctor getting tattoos) or as long sequence (love interest Mako Mori's childhood catastrophe facing a kaiju). In a way, that combination--derivative but interesting--reminds me of Cameron's Avatar.

But then Avatar did a lot better. Currently, this movie has made back a little less than half of its $190 million, which means that it will probably break even at some point, but probably not spawn a series of sequels. I have a couple thoughts about why it has performed OK, and perhaps the first that should be mentioned is that it's only playing four times a day here in San Angelo. (For comparison, Grown Ups 2 plays nine times a day.) Is that because it's long (2:11) or because no one thought people would be interested? Another problem may be that the buy-in cost, the gimme, is just too high for people: if giant monsters attack, are we really going to build giant robots?

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 89: William James, On Some Mental Effects of the Earthquake (#33)

William James, "On Some Mental Effects of the Earthquake" (1906) from William James: Writings 1902–1910:

One of my favorite William James quotes is
As the aim of a football-team is not merely to get the ball to a certain goal (if that were so, they would simply get up on some dark night and place it there), but to get it there by a fixed MACHINERY OF CONDITIONS—the game's rules and the opposing players [...]
That's from Pragmatism, and like the best philosophical notes, it's both true and funny. The rhythm of that "get up on some dark night and place it there" is a masterpiece of monosyllabic flatness. Which has nothing to do with today's piece, other than prove that William James can be very funny and very right.

But if you know William James today, chances are you know him as a philosopher of the personal experience, which gives you some hint about what this piece will be about--but not a total idea. Yes, James writes about what it felt like to be caught in an earthquake in 1906, when he was teaching in Stanford. (Or: when he was supposed to be teaching--because the earthquake, that semester was suspended and he went home to Boston soon after.) So there's some note about what "earthquake" means to him and how everyone he talks to imputes some psychology and agency to the earthquake.

According to James, since he is interested in the "subjective," he won't talk about the material issues--and anyway, that was covered by the newspapers. That's semi-infuriating to me, the idea that we can separate the subjective from the material; but it is a nice reminder that James exists in a print ecology. (The main problem, as usual, is that we can't read it all; all we have here is James's article.)

But what's particularly interesting to me is how the pragmatic and the social overwhelm (and interpenetrate, which means "penetrate" but with more syllables) the purely subjective and mental. So, yeah, James notes that everyone he spoke to had the same experience of the earthquake: not fear, only a readiness to work together. But as he notes, a lot of this had to do with the shared nature of the catastrophe. No one person was singled out, so what's the point of complaining? So even the personal experience is embedded in a social situation.

William James notes two takeaways from this experience: the first is that people are ready to reimpose order on catastrophe; and the second was that universal equanimity in catastrophe--Eastern newspapers worry, but "I heard not a single really pathetic or sentimental word in California expressed by any one." Where's the subjective in that?

And, as proof that William James was fairly enlightened, he goes on to note that this is "a normal and universal trait of human nature"; though the only emotional people he sees are three "very poor" Italian women, James doesn't tsk tsk over the excitable poor, the hysterical women, or the melodramatic Italians. All he does is say that every nation would probably react the same.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 88: Washington Irving, The Christmas Dinner (#104)

Washington Irving, "The Christmas Dinner" (1819-20) from Washington Irving: History, Tales and Sketches:

Where I live, "Keep the Christ in Christmas" bumper stickers are more common than, I don't know, let's say Jews. People always have the capacity to surprise me, but I might also hazard a guess that "Keep the Christ in Christmas" bumper stickers also outnumber the people who know that Christmas trees got popular after Prince Albert brought the custom to England from Germany. (Where it probably derives at least partly from Norse rituals. Hence the relative unpopularity of "Keep the Thor in Thursday" bumper stickers.)

I raise this issue because Washington Irving's "The Christmas Dinner" is obsessed with traditions: what they usually are, how they actually get practiced, whether or not the young will keep it up when they're in charge. Here's now interested Irving is in the topic: it's 14 pages--with footnotes! He's not just making this stuff up, ladies and gentlemen--he really knows about the peacock pie.

Even though, on page 5, the narrator (the Geoffrey Crayon character) notes that he has an interest in "old and obsolete things" that might be tedious to the reader, he goes on at length; and even though there's no real story, no anecdote outstays its welcome. It is, in a way, similar to Zora Neale Hurston's "Story in Harlem Slang": very little story, lots of observation. So that we learn that peacock pie is traditional, which gives rise to certain sayings--but the old Squire here didn't have the heart to kill a peacock since they had recently undergone some losses, etc.

Perhaps the reason why these 14 pages go by relatively painlessly is hidden there: there's a certain warmth and good cheer, which is both demonstrated (the elders cheer on the youngsters' games) and told at length (as we are told, frequently, that everything is cheery). Perhaps another reason why this story works is that the focus never wavers from the theme of old traditions and is layered in; so, for instance, when the children decide to put on an old-style masque, they raid the old stories (Robin Hood, etc.) and the old clothes.

Which, if you're inclined that way, gives the cheer here an aura of melancholy: these old traditions are sources of good cheer--and they are passing away from the world. And that's another way that Irving moves this story along and makes it palatable. Everyone is happy, but not in a way that annoys the reader. Instead of thinking, "oh, they have it good" (as one is inclined with, say, a Henry James piece), one thinks "How can I get some of that?" Considering that Irving is a crucial figure in the popularizing of Christmas as a holiday in America, I guess this piece had some of its intended effect.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 87: Sarah Orne Jewett, An Autumn Holiday (#150)

Sarah Orne Jewett, "An Autumn Holiday" (1880) from Sarah Orne Jewett: Novels & Stories:

After or alongside Stephen King, Sarah Orne Jewett is probably my favorite New England regionalist/local color writer. Like King, Jewett usually plays a complex balancing act between holding up her old sailors and herb-gathering widows as freaks of cultural isolation; and showing them as humane and identifiable characters. In a way, we might see Jewett's ethnic-ization of the region like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison: through their particulars and strangeness, we see the shared humanity.

One reason why I like Jewett is that her local color is never just anthropology, but embedded in narrative. Which is one reason why "An Autumn Holiday" starts so oddly, for me. The narrator takes a wandering walk, a Thoreauvian exploration of the woods and fields that includes the discovery of an unattended grave and the foundation of a long-gone house. What is this? Sure, it's melancholy--it reminds the narrator of a small boy's toy boat getting shipwrecked--but where's the impulse to keep going.

Then, on page five, we finally meet some of the local human-freaks, Miss Marsh and her sister Mrs. Snow. And yes, they both have names that mark their connection with the landscape. But the story isn't really about them, not directly; they gossip about some locals--the woman who always plays at being sick and the husband who can't do anything but care for her; and, the main story, pp. 8-14, of a Mr. Daniel Gunn who after some heat-stroke (or something) occasionally thought he was his own sister. (The original title for this piece was "Miss Daniel Gunn," which shows how important this section is; and how squeamish her editors were for finding that title too much.)

The story of Dan'el Gunn is hilarious and sad: there's low stakes, so it's not tragic--he's an old man with a strange idea and everyone is pretty accepting of the idea. So why sad? If I wanted to be super-cute, I'd say that their New England accent that drops the "i" marks Daniel as someone without a coherent "I." If I wanted to be just regular-strength cute, I'd note that the last names of that family mark them as non-landscape/other (Gunn) or lost (Gunn is related to Ash).

But if I didn't want to be cute at all, I'd note (as the LoA page does) the various parallels: Daniel Gunn took a strange path that set him outside the usual bounds of society, as did Miss Polly Marsh--and we can see that reflected in the abandoned grave. But as Snow notes, love goes where it will and we can't force it into the usual paths that society declares safe; and then the final image is of the narrator being driven home by her father, noting that the road is much longer than the natural path she took across the fields. So here's another balancing act: between the natural-personal and the societal.

Short Story Read-Aloud, Week 19

A light week. I've been less interested in listening to podcasts right now. Not sure why. You'll also note that I'm also feeling pretty critical.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Erin Cashier, "The Alchemist's Feather": A story I heard before elsewhere, about a homunculus used in the production of a phoenix's feather; only this homunculus has fallen in love/friendship with the little girl who is going to be sacrificed, and they escape. A fine story.

Cast of Wonders (Protecting Project PulpTales to TerrifyStarship Sofa, Crime City Central)

Gary McMahon, "The Sand King": A man goes with this wife to the beach; he's illustrating an M.R. James story; she had, if I'm reading this right, a miscarriage; there's some domestic abuse issues. Nicely atmospheric but not gripping plot or character.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 86: Harriet Ann Jacobs, The Lover (#170)

Harriet Ann Jacobs, "The Lover" (1861) from American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation:

Most days I take great comfort in the idea that the arc of history bends towards justice; but I'm not sure I really believe it--and even if it is true, why does that arc have to take so goddamn long.

Case in point, Harriet Jacobs's fabulous Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which tells the messed-up, Django-esque story of Harriet Jacobs, who was abused and terrorized by her male owner, who honestly seemed confused about why she didn't love his attention. Meanwhile, the wife, rather than take it out on the husband who liked to rape slave girls, takes it out on the slave girls. Jacobs's story goes on from there, telling her incredible story of hiding in an attic for years before escaping to the North. And it's so incredible that I can't totally blame people in the 20th century for not believing it--and yet, I kind of can: why is that some readers, without evidence, always assume that someone else wrote works by other people? "Frankenstein written by a girl? Ridiculous." "This beautiful and well-written memoir written by a black woman? Don't make me laugh."

This LoA collection excerpts only a part of the memoir; for the full thing, check out the LoA's collection of slave narratives, which are complex and interesting, both each on their own and all taken together as a genre. As far as excerpts go, this does a pretty good job of capturing the violence and oppression and weirdness. (Whenever I read the master, he's always a monster, but always a little confused by why Harriet would consider him a monster. I'm reminded of the weirdness of James Henry Hammond, slave-owner and rapist, who left a letter to his son(?), exhorting him to take care of the "family, white and black" after JHH's death. How weird is that? You can rape a woman, sell your child into slavery elsewhere if you need the money--and then turn around say "we're all one family"? As many abolitionists noted, slavery does damage to slave-owners as well.)

Like Beecher Stowe, Harriet Jacobs focuses her attention on the emotional aspect of the black slave, the  reminder that, you know, black people don't like when their families are broken up and they are forced into bad situations. What I've always enjoyed about Jacobs's memoir is that her position (after the fact, free in the North) allows her to note that slaves would be better off not falling in love with other blacks--but that she was a young woman, so of course she fell in love.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 85: Henry James, An English New Year (#105)

Henry James, "An English New Year" (1879/1905) from Henry James: Collected Travel Writings: Great Britain and America:

The 1870s was not a good time, economically--except for Henry James. That's the message I take away both from the LoA notes on this piece and from the piece itself. It's a short piece--shorter with the illustrations--the reports a few glimpses from England: business is terrible, but at least there's public support and private charity; London is smoggy; I went to a workhouse to give gifts to children and they did not impress me.

Now, in the best of situations, it's easy to make fun of Henry James as this aloof, effete aesthete--the kind of guy who would make Niles Crane look like a rugged individualist engaged in the world. "An English New Year" is not the best of situations. James slides effortlessly from "things are tough for working people" to "we read about their problems over morning tea." Sure, these articles help prime the pump of charity. Alternatively, "For recovery of one's nervous balance the only course was flight--flight to the country..."

But even here, in the country, James's delicate nerves are troubled by poverty when he goes to see poor children. He wants them to be as romantic as Dickensian paupers, but they turn out to be dull and potentially idiotic. The only poetry of the scene is the benevolent rich woman.

I can't really tell if James is being sarcastic in this piece, since the self-portrait he paints is of someone who care less about humans than about some abstract sense of beauty. My sense is that he's in earnest; and that this sort of aesthetic interest trumped human interest in most of his life. The comparison to Dickens is extra-grating: how could James make himself look like a worse, more decadent, less humane person? By comparing him to an author who experienced poverty and did work to alleviate suffering.

For those trivia lovers out there who know that James and Wells were friends at one point, until they had a big crack-up, this is an interesting piece which raises a question about their friendship: not "why did they ever break-up as friend?" but "how where these two ever friends to begin with?"

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 84: Stephen Crane, The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky (#127)

Stephen Crane, "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky" (1898) from Stephen Crane: Prose & Poetry:

Writerly types today have a general consensus on POV shifts in short stories: don't do it. Sure, Hemingway gets away with it in "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," popping into the heads of several characters, including the lion. But that sort of omniscient head-hopping isn't done much these days, when POV tends towards first or limited third positions. I was just thinking about this the other day when I was wondering how to capture the multi-POV structure of Game of Thrones and Reservoir Dogs in a short story. And lo! There was Stephen Crane's "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky" to show me one way.

If you haven't read the story (and I never did till this morning), it goes like this:

  1. pp. 1-5: Sheriff Potter brings his new bride back to the town of Yellow Sky; they are on a fancy Pullman train, coming back from San Antonio, and everyone on the train is judging them for their naiveté, from the other travelers all the way to the black porters and waiters. So it's no wonder that, as they approach Yellow Sky, Potter begins to worry that his town will judge him negatively. To contrast that worry, we also see that they are happy together.
  2. pp. 5-8: We rewind a few minutes (21 minutes from the arrival of the train, which ended the first part) to find a bunch of fellows in the bar; when suddenly, a gunslinger comes into town, looking for a fight. The drummer (traveling salesman) is new, so he gets to be told all about this Scratchy Wilson, the last of an old gang, who is only ornery when drunk, and who usually gets handled by Sheriff Potter, who is in San Antonio. (Only, we know he's on his way back.)
  3. pp. 8-10: Nobody will fight Scratchy, so he goes to shoot up and yell at Sheriff Potter's house.
  4. pp. 10-12: Potter confronts Scratchy and defuses the situation by noting that he just got married and so is unarmed.
As the LoA page notes, there's a lot here to write papers about, if you're so inclined: the aging legend of the wild frontier vs. the nation-wide trade that makes that legend possible (the gunslinger wearing New York clothes--but we could expand that out to all the Eastern media empires building up the legend of the West); the strange collision of the two plots--new bride and dangerous gunslinger--where the tension of both dissolves the other (all that long first part, Sheriff Potter worries about what the town will think of his bride, when--irony alert--it's the fact that he comes with a new bride that defuses an even bigger problem). Not only do I support the writing of papers, but aspiring authors would do well to consider how these themes help move the reader through the story.

And on the POV issue, we can see how and why Crane moves from POV to POV: each POV gives us some information and tension--what will the town think of the sheriff's marriage?; will the drunk gunslinger kill anyone?; is anyone at home when the gunslinger attacks the sheriff's house?--until the final POV brings it all together by answering all the tensions. That's the why. The how is by marking the POV as wandering from the very beginning: in that first section, we see and hear things from the POV of everyone on the train; so when the second section jumps to the saloon, we aren't so surprised. (We're also less surprised because we get a transition sentence, the equivalent of the comic book's common "Meanwhile, elsewhere in Metropolis...".)

Monday, July 15, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 83: Thornton Wilder, “Spiritus Valet” (#29)

Thornton Wilder, “Spiritus Valet” (1918) from Thornton Wilder: The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Other Novels 1926–1948:

I really liked Thornton Wilder's autobiographical sketch, "Chefoo, China," which wasn't so much a story but much more a character- and environment-study. Did you expect anything else from the author of Our Town? "Spiritus Valet" is the odd man out in this series: it tells a story with a distinct beginning, middle, end structure; and pays very little attention to the environment. It is, also, not as interesting to me.

"Spiritus Valet" tells the story of Mrs. Manners, a widow who once knew the poet Sebastian Torr in a period of great mystery; the only artifacts from that time are his poems about some golden-haired woman. And Torr-scholar Frederick Burton thinks that Manners might be that golden-haired woman and that she might have letters from him--and now that her husband is dead, why not give over this evidence. This is section one, pages 1-4, where Burton demands the letters and Mrs. Manners thinks it would be romantic to be the dead poet's muse/object, so maybe she should just write them herself...

The second section, pages 4-8, tells about how she wrote the letters, though she often felt a strange force trying to prevent her. That's the poet's ghost, we're lead to believe; and the story takes that so seriously that this story could fit in with the LoA's anthology of American fantasy. But she goes on with the project.

And we get the results in the third section, pages 8-11: she got some attention for the faked letters, but then she was socially ostracized, which would seem bad if we ever got any hint of society in this story. Just about the whole piece takes place in her house, with a quick jaunt in her carriage. At the end, the real golden-haired woman comes to say that she knows Manners lied and will expose her by printing the real letters--after the real golden-haired woman dies. But the spirit of Torr took revenge by spreading rumor. Which is again, one of those moments that left me scratching my head.

Which brings me to my real problem with the story. It proposes to discuss certain interesting issues like public/private life and the artists' constant double-step between "this is fiction"/"this is autobiography"; there's issues about legacy (the real golden-haired woman not only has Torr's letters but, presumably, Torr's son) and ownership and sincerity and romance. But it boils down to the strangely banal idea of a ghost spreading rumors about a widow.

Boycotts and blacklists; or, We need to talk about Orson (Scott Card)

Back in February, I discussed the issue of Orson Scott Card and under what conditions people (or just me, really) could ethically consume material by a homophobe who has argued that homosexuality is often linked to childhood abuse and trauma; and that any government that supported marriage equality had lost its legitimacy to govern. (You remember, it was the post with a very short decision tree.) Now that the movie version of Ender's Game will soon come out, many other people have weighed in on the issue, from Chuck Wendig (verdict: he loves Ender's Game, but can't conscionably put money in Card's pocket) to Cory Doctorow (verdict: free speech is sacred, and he doesn't understand the difference between a consumer-boycott and a corporate/governmental blacklist).

Now, as we've seen with other things--Chick-fil-A sandwiches for one example--any attempt to punish a business for the political views of its owners/operators can have a backlash in the form of political people who hold the opposite view: if Chick-fil-A suddenly represents anti-gay policies, then anti-gay people will rush to eat chicken. Is that what will happen here--for every person who avoids going to see the movie for political reasons, there might be someone else going to go see it?

But if the goal is to make a big noise and remind people (who are resistant to change) that change has already happened and to remind other people (who feel left out because of their minority or invisible status) that they are not alone, well, then, boycott on. Because boycotts are not just aimed at the target; they--like all protests--are aimed at the audience. This sort of boycott nicely sends a message that there are limits on acceptable speech.

This doesn't mean that OSC isn't free to speak his mind; it only means that he isn't free from the consequences of doing so. Let's be honest: we've always had limits on what speech was acceptable--you can't yell "fire" in a movie theater because it endangers lives. Maybe you can't yell "your gayness is a tragic consequence of your childhood abuse"--since, after all, that also endangers lives.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 82: Shirley Jackson, Charles (#23)

Shirley Jackson, "Charles" (1949) from Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories:

One thing I hear a lot of online is the refrain that today's audiences are more sophisticated (or, in deference to The Simpsons, "sophistimacated"); so that when we, sophistimacated as we are, read an old story with a simple twist, it's common to hear "oh, maybe that surprised them back then." (Other variations include "maybe that entertained them back then, before they had the internet.")

To some extent, that might be true; it's hard to imagine "and the villain was the evil split personality" being much of a twist anymore. Similarly, most readers today wouldn't be surprised when the end of this story reveals that there is no Charles in this kindergarten class and that all the mischief is probably traceable back to Laurie.

But although the parents in this story never guess that, there are so many clues throughout that it's hard to imagine that Jackson was going for a true "shock the audience" twist. The very first sentence of this story notes that Laurie is changing, "my sweet-voiced nursery-school tot replaced by a long trousered, swaggering character...". And when he comes home, he's fresh and naughty all over the place. So this story--another of Jackson's domestic slice-of-life tales--doesn't try to shock us with Laurie's naughtiness; what's more shocking is that the parents (including the narrator) don't get it.

What's especially shocking--if you don't have kids--is how ordinary this sort of terror can become:
Wednesday and Thursday were routine; Charles yelled during story hour and hit a boy in the stomach and made him cry.
Sure, there's a Gothic touch here, with the phantom bad character and the adults drawn in to the mystery (what's Charles's mother like?). But it rubs up (again) with that sense of the ordinary and domestic. Jackson's other works may involve haunted houses; her autobiographical and domestic stories show us that all houses are haunted.

(Is that true? Or does it just sound good?)

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 81: Anonymous, The Sentiments of a Lady in New-Jersey (#183)

Anonymous, "The Sentiments of a Lady in New-Jersey" (1780) from The American Revolution: Writings from the War of Independence:

Inspired by a column and donation drive in Philadelphia, this New Jersey note (with its own donation drive) goes through a fairly standard form for war grievance and exhortation: the British are so terrible that people all over the world see that they have no principles or culture in this war; they've committed these atrocities (insert atrocity list here); the Continental Army soldiers put up with very adverse conditions and women/households should do more to help them--unless you want those afore-mentioned atrocities committed on you. It's an effective bit of rhetoric (they are bad, our boys are good, we should help our boys or else) and hence, a well-worn trope.

From an early-American perspective, I find the Classical Roman references most interesting; as is true in other early American political writing, the idea that America is following in the Western tradition of pre-Caesar Roman Republic is very very explicit; i.e., Washington is Cincinnatus reborn, etc.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 80: Stephen Crane, An Experiment in Misery (#75)

Stephen Crane, "An Experiment in Misery" (1894) from Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry:

When reading Crane, I like to imagine where the camera would go, largely because Crane has a naturalist/journalist's interest in externals and because his POV is often carefully placed in the world--either in the battle of Red Badge or in the streets of Maggie--but not of it. Like an Emersonian "transparent eyeball" (and yeah, there's totally a line to draw between the Transcendentalists and the Social Reformers), the Crane POV is presented as an unbiased absorber of the world; sometimes, it may dip into the mind or feelings of a character, but it never becomes stuck.

In this reading, "An Experiment in Misery" is somewhat interesting since it tells the story of a new tramp as he goes along. Isn't he in the world? Well, in this version he is, sort of. (There was actually originally a frame involving people possibly taking a turn faking as tramps, but that was removed; and it's been a long time since I read it, so I won't comment on that.) Even though this main person is supposed to be a tramp, he's suspiciously well-supplied with money and doesn't really know about tramp-life.

The rest of the story is pretty standard for Crane: we hear about what this main character--"the youth"--sees and hears as he goes to find a flophouse and a cheap restaurant. When he meets and befriends a person who looks like an assassin, that guy is marked as "assassin" for the rest of the story. There's really no psychologizing and barely any thoughts; the only time we get any internals is when the assassin talks some about his history and his thoughts about the different parts of the country.

Short story read-aloud, week 18

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

M. Bennardo, "The Penitent": A man in a prison discovers he's the only one left. Mmm... okay... but I've seen isolation fiction done better.

Lightspeed and Nightmare 

Caspian Gray, "Centipede Heartbeat": A woman thinks her partner is full of centipedes and tries to figure out a way to kill the centipedes without killing the woman. There's a moment at the end where it seems like the centipedes may be real, but the rest of the story is just the claustrophobic view of a well-meaning schizophrenic.

Cast of Wonders (Protecting Project PulpTales to TerrifyStarship Sofa)

Allison Littlewood, "4 a.m. When the Walls Are Thinnest": A man figures out how to use the Indian rope trick to escape from prison, but is required to pay the price--or something. It's interesting, with the protagonist getting stories/lied to from Stumpy, but at some point it runs out of steam.

Yvonne Navarro, "I Know What To Do": A divorced man who dislikes his ex-wife finds a weird cockroach monster in his apartment (otherwise very clean thanks to his clean-obsessed new wife) and sends it to the ex-wife, solving his alimony problems.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 79: Red Smith, Jim Crow’s Playmates (#173)

Red Smith, "Jim Crow’s Playmates" (1950) from American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith:

After the earlier story about police brutality during the Civil Rights Movement, here's a nice antidote: Red Smith reports on Branch Rickey's experience with segregation and the color line. See, before Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson, he was a baseball manager at his school. (The LoA page notes he was at Ohio Wesleyan, not Michigan, as Red reports.) And when the team went on the road, the only black member of the team faced discrimination before he even got on the ballfield and seemed pretty upset, noting that this wouldn't happen if he were only white. According to Red, Rickey promised that ballplayer that one day, it wouldn't matter that he was black. Yay.

What I like about this story, why I think it's an antidote to the Bull Connors of the world, is that it's not just "Rickey feels bad for the black man." The story is: Rickey saw how racism affected someone's life in America and did something about it. I also like how the story doesn't beatify Rickey and even notes that he failed to brief his one black player on the racism they were likely to encounter... in Southern Indiana.

Finally, Smith tells this all in a pleasant, occasionally jocular voice, far from the hectoring or triumphalism that is a real danger when talking about overcoming prejudice. Note, for instance, how Smith uses some metaphor and hyperbole here:
A year ago Rickey was weaving and ducking and bobbing in an effort to elude people who wanted to have him stuffed and mounted as a prime specimen of tolerance...
So we've got two sporting ideas (boxing, hunting), and though the theme of violence is implicit, we can relax because we know no one is really going to hurt Rickey. Who, after all, is a white man who doesn't really have to worry about being lynched, burned, castrated, or attacked. In other words, Red can afford to be jocular, even though there is the specter of real violence out there.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 78: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Feathertop: A Moralized Legend (#137)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Feathertop: A Moralized Legend" (1852) from Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales & Sketches:

Here's a story that has two lives: on one hand, we have the story of a pumpkin-headed scarecrow that is given life, which is perfectly fine for adaptations--movies, plays, tv movies, comic books like Fables. On the other hand--and this part is pushed heavily by the LoA page and some critics--there's some references to the artificiality of fiction, etc., etc. Frankly, that seems like thin sauce to me, since it focuses on one or two lines where we hear that the scarecrow-given-life is no less real than characters in romances.

But alongside that line, there's dozens of other lines about the role of artificiality in life that fits better with 19th-century issues of sincerity and politeness. For more on that, you need to read Karen Halttunen's Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870. Seriously, there's a lot to do here with fantasy and artificiality, such as when the witch grants the scarecrow with fantastic wealth:
[His wealth] consisted partly of a gold mine in Eldorado, and of ten thousand shares in a broken bubble, and of half a million acres of vineyard at the North Pole, and of a castle in the air, and a chateau in Spain, together with all the rents and income therefrom accruing.
"Chateau in Spain" is another way Hawthorne had of saying "castle in the car"; and as you can see, this has to do with fantasy and artificiality--and nothing to do with the role of the fiction-makers and storytellers like Hawthorne.

As a story, it takes a while to get going, with a lot of time focused on the witch and her creation of Feathertop; only the second half tells the plot itself, of Feathertop's introduction to a young woman (whose own manners are artificial, much as his are) and his eventual confrontation with his own falseness in a mirror. That crisis comes off as a little strange: why is a mirror capable of piercing the illusion? Sure, there's something about seeing your own artificiality, but it still seems a little awkward/convenient. If seeing his own artificiality is dangerous to Feathertop, why isn't it a problem to see his own hands and legs, which are always marked as artificial and mannered in their movements?

Special bonus, though: Hawthorne describes something very much like "the uncanny valley" when noting that "It is the effect of anything completely and consummately artificial, in human shape, that the person impresses us as an unreality" and that that unreality has an element of ghastliness. This really shouldn't surprise us that much; except in Hawthorne's time, the issue of artificial humanity had less to do with computer graphics and more to do with mannequins and automatons.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 77: Sherwood Anderson, The Untold Lie (#139)

Sherwood Anderson, "The Untold Lie" (1917) from Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories:

Sherwood Anderson's "The Egg" was the first story that I read for this project and it not only inspired me with a story idea, but I think it had a lot to do with my commitment to the project: I hadn't ever read the story before and I liked it so much, so who knows what else I would find by letting the Library of America be my guide?

"The Untold Lie" is another story of domestic, small-town failure; and what it lacks in comedy, it makes up for in technique, particularly POV. Which is maybe a good excuse to pause and note Anderson's own interesting story of financial failure and mental breakdown. As the LoA page notes, when his business was failing, he walked four days to Cleveland, which seems to have some thematic connection with one character's mad dash across the fields in "The Untold Lie."

That character is Ray Pearson, beaten-down family man, who works alongside devil-may-care youth Hal Winters. The narrator positions himself as an all-knowing townsman, summing up Hal simply and from the standpoint of "Everyone": "Hal was a bad one. Everyone said that." So the narrator can dip in to a private moment between Ray and Hal, when Hal asks Ray if it's worth it to get married and have kids, which is particurlary on his mind since he's got a girl in a family way. Ray doesn't answer immediately, but later, after his wife nags at him, he runs off to tell Hal not to sacrifice his life--but by that time, Hal has already decided to do the respectable thing.

Of course, that's the right thing to do, from society's POV; but we spend so long with Ray, and hear his story of ambition thwarted by family, that it becomes a little less clear. As Ray notes at the end, anything he said would have been a lie--family is both worth sacrifice and not worth sacrifice. And the feeling that Ray gets comes upon him suddenly; yes, his wife says one thing that might be nagging, but it's only one. What really does it is... something else:
The beauty of the country about Winesburg was too much for Ray on that fall evening. That is all there was to it. He could not stand it.
Wait, what? Ray hasn't been presented as a particularly aesthetic or land-oriented guy. That "That is all there was to it" is both marking an area that we can't ask about and an area where no answer is presented yet. Similarly, at the end, when he realizes that he would lie no matter what he said, we quickly move from Ray as center of the story to Ray as no one:
“It’s just as well. Whatever I told him would have been a lie,” he said softly, and then his form also disappeared into the darkness of the fields.
What what? Anderson doesn't play much with complicated words or complex syntactic constructions. Instead his simple comments are heavily freighted with pressurized meaning. "The Untold Lie" is a story of blow-ups and crack-ups, either had or repressed.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 76: Mark Twain, Running for Governor (#149)

Mark Twain, "Running for Governor" (1870) from Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852–1890:

As I noted here, "journalistic ethics" wasn't that much of a concern for 19th-century journalists, most of whom worked for party-aligned papers; and many of the others were mostly interested in sensationalism. Mark Twain has a bit of fun with this in "Running for the Governor," noting how all these papers report on made-up stories about candidate Twain that they then run with as real. Why won't Twain answer our questions of how he defrauded a widow in China through perjury--which is why we'll call him the Perjurer Twain? Etc., etc.

Even at fives pages, this joke gets to be a little repetitive. And this piece also showcases what, for a reformer, is one of the persistant frustrations with Twain: for all his accurate satire about how terrible things are, there's no hint about how things could be made better. Shitty journalism got you down? Why you could... well, I guess... I suppose... hey, let's invest in a mechanical type-setter!

I don't want to let off the hook today's journalism, and I'd like to hold up for ridicule Peggy Noonan, who in the Wall Street Journal, wrote of an unverified rumor about the Clintons that "It would be irresponsible not to" speculate. Welcome to 1870-style ethics-free journalism, Peggy "let's just walk on by verified stories of torture because they're just too sad" Noonan. I have to say, as much as Twain's joke is unfortunately timeless, I wish he had named names a little more to give his piece some contemporary bite.

What we can learn from Mad Men, Season 5

I recently realized I could watch Mad Men season 6 online, but only for the next few weeks, so Sarah and I raced through season 5, which I guess we'd forgotten about. (If Matthew Weiner ever reads this blog, then he'll have to take that backhanded compliment.)

Now, there's a lot that goes into a show that we don't even notice until it goes wrong, which includes everything from the technical side to the research side. (Historical fiction is hard.) Conversely, there's all the flashy acting that we see, which rightly gets a lot of attention. So much of the action of Mad Men takes place on Don's face. And for all that we have a romantic view of writing as a personal expression of one person, we have to recognize the collaborative efforts that go into this sort of work.

This goes doubly, probably, for a show that skirts the edge of being an ensemble. Sure, the argument could be made that Don is the protagonist or that he shares the role with Peggy--her rise contrasted with his fall, a la Dreiser's Sister Carrie. Really--and spoilers abound from here on out--so many of the main characters get some arc or moment to shine, dramatically, whether it's the ongoing money troubles that lead Lane to embezzlement, which leads him to suicide; or the less-defined arc of Roger Sterling dealing with the emptiness of his life.

Looked at as a serial, one of the benefits of this ensemble cast is that you can seed elements in in small portions. So we don't have an entire episode dedicated to Lane's money troubles until we've seen a little issue here and a little issue there.

There's also something to be said for the ensemble cast providing multiple points of view: Roger Sterling is always ready with a quip, but he'd make a terrible viewpoint character because his selfishness makes him hard to relate to; we get to see Peggy's triumphs and lows contrasted with Don's, both in work and at home; Stan may be a relatively minor character--we don't learn much about him--but he gets to sit in on the meetings and voice the viewer's thoughts without having to embody all of the viewer's issues (which he couldn't because he's from a different time period); etc.

Which brings me to my final thought (in this first batch of thoughts), which is that Mad Men excels at mixing tones: tragedy and comedy, light and dark, satisfaction and creeping desolation. So in almost any scene, there's a certain ambiguity about whether it will turn out for the better or for the worse for the characters.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 75: Len Holt, Eyewitness: The Police Terror at Birmingham (#175)

Len Holt, "Eyewitness: The Police Terror at Birmingham" (1963) from Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941–1963:

Very recently, the Supreme Court's conservative-leaning members gutted part of the Voting Rights Amendment, saying that it had done its job. Which is an interesting argument: is racism like a pneumonia, where you take your medicine and then stop when you're better or is is more like pervasive depression, where you take your medicine and don't stop because the medicine is what's making you better? Also, recently, the Texas State Legislature is abuzz with a fight over abortion rights, and at least one pro-life/anti-choice state congressmen reported hearing pro-choice supporters chanting "Hail Satan" and forming a pentagram. So you'll excuse me if I read Len Holt's eyewitness account of police brutality in the long and not always steady arc of social justice.

(Because it reminds me of that b.s. "abortion-lovers hail Satan" remark, I especially am interested in the LoA page's note that some white supremacist/anti-integration groups reported that the protesters were putting steaks in their shirts to entice the dogs. It's amazing, from a psychological standpoint, how much b.s. people are willing to eat to support some position they hold. Or rather: it's depressing and predictable.)

Holt's eyewitness account takes the form of an almost free-roving eye: he's here, with the marchers; he's over there, with the planning committee; he's at the prison. He reports what he sees--such as the hoses are so powerful the water strips bark and bricks (repeated twice)--but none of it seems to touch him directly. We never hear how he himself was hit, attacked, scared, crushed, etc. It's a clever decision, since it gives his eyewitness account the weight of impartiality. So when we reach the final lines, the impartiality of it makes his pronouncements terrible, in the best sense of the word:
America learned that the patience of 100 years is not inexhaustible. It is exhausted. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 74: Frederick Douglass, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln (#162)

Frederick Douglass, "Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln" (1886) from The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now:

Confession: I have a hard time reading these reminiscences about Lincoln without simultaneously tearing up and rolling my eyes. Tearing up because, goddamn, everything about Lincoln just makes him sound so good--a man with ideals who was willing to be practical, a serious man who could tell a joke, a literate man who could talk to ordinary people. And at the same time, rolling my eyes because, well, do we ever hear the bad things about him?

Now, we're not going to hear anything bad from Frederick Douglass post-assassination, especially considering the betrayal of the African-American population by the Republicans in 1876. (That's when Reconstruction ended and the South was basically ceded to white power. Have you seen the "reading test" that Louisiana made to prevent blacks from voting?)

Pretty much all we're going to hear from Douglass is how Lincoln was either on the side of the angels or secretly on the side of the angels. So when Douglass tells Lincoln how black soldiers should be treated, Lincoln basically notes that some prejudice will exist now, but there will be equality in the future. Douglass's little trick here is to summarize Lincoln when he's being pragmatic ("racism, what're you going do, amirite?") and quote him when he's being idealistic.

(We also hear a pretty fun joke about how tall and awkward Lincoln is:
On my approach he slowly drew his feet in from the different parts of the room into which they had strayed, and he began to rise, and continued to rise until he looked down upon me, and extended his hand and gave me a welcome.
Note that Douglass doesn't extend the joke in any moral area--tall people are lazy, for instance--but just lets the tallness speak for itself, until Lincoln becomes a very tall but welcoming figure.)

All this rah-rah-Lincoln is nicely balanced by the LoA's page introducing this piece. They note how Lincoln and Douglass had several differences over the years, especially at the beginning; and the writer goes through several points where Douglass movingly disagrees with Lincoln's position. Can we get more of that, please?

Friday, July 5, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 73: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln (#76)

Harriet Beecher Stowe, "Abraham Lincoln" (1863, -4) from The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now:

(Quick note on the date: Stowe originally wrote this piece for the Chris­tian Watchman and Reflector in 1863 (I think); but the text here is from the more popular magazine The Living Age, from 1864. And if you're keeping track at home, the famous meeting between Stowe and Lincoln was in 1862--though we can't know for sure whether he said what I hope he said: "Is this the little woman who made this great war?" Alternately: "So you’re the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war." Like I said: we'll never know.)

Stowe provides a sort of campaign biography and tacit endorsement for Lincoln's reelection, crowning him both as a regular working man (facing a working man's war) who can speak to the average American. There's the typical things that one includes in this sort of thing: he rose from humble origins, he worked tirelessly, he's honest and moderate. Stowe's brilliant metaphor here is that Lincoln is wire strong: he will pull the nation through to the right end, even though he responds to pushes this way and that.

What Stowe adds to this is her deep religious belief (which is all over Uncle Tom's Cabin, as well as all over her family history). To Stowe, Lincoln isn't just an elected official--he's appointed by God. (It's a little awkward when she says that "God’s hand was upon him with a visible protection" when Lincoln avoided assassination earlier, since we all know how this story ends. Heck, even Lincoln had some idea: "“Whichever way it [the war] ends, I have the impression that I sha’n’t last long after it’s over.” Yeesh.) There's a lot of God talk in this piece, so much so that Stowe seems to find it necessary to note that Lincoln himself isn't as religious as all that.

The other interesting aspect that Stowe adds to this is her framing of the Civil War as a global struggle between labor and capital. And I'm not exactly adding those terms to make her sound like a Marxist or labor unionist. Listen to her break down the war and its wider import:
It is a war for a principle which concerns all mankind. It is THE war for the rights of the working classes of mankind, as against the usurpation of privileged aristocracies. You can make nothing else of it. That is the reason why, like a shaft of light in the judgment-day, it has gone through all nations, dividing to the right and the left the multitudes. For us and our cause, all the common working classes of Europe—all that toil and sweat and are oppressed. Against us, all privileged classes, nobles, princes, bankers, and great manufacturers, and all who live at ease.
First, nice use of all-caps and italicization to get your point across. Second, oh my god, did you see how she lumped together two varieties of unelected aristocracies--the old world nobility and the new world industrial captains and bankers? This is the 1860s, which will see a growth in labor unionism and also a huge growth in anti-union activity. But we know which side Stowe is on--and we know which side she thinks you should be on.

Short story read-aloud, week 17

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

James Lecky, "The Bone House" (BCS 018): A sorcerer and his son hide out from a war, which naturally finds them in the person of a cute woman soldier. Some fine description here, but ultimately, though it's presented as the story of how the sorcerer's son decides to use magic to kill everyone, the story features almost no decisions from the protagonist: he saves the woman, hides her without knowing anything about her (so, not really a hard decision), and then it's all out of his hands.

Harry R. Campion "Walking Out" (BCS 019): In some desert city full of exiles (but also somehow at the center of international trade?), some people are haunted by these living ideas of Death and Madness. An interesting, weird setting; and I like the meditation on how these ideas are personified--why is Death  "sweet"?; but I think the story could have been plotted more/structured. For instance, the protagonist starts out leaving a lover--but what significance does that have?

Aliette de Bodard, "Blighted Heart" (BCS 020): In a civilization that sounds Mesoamerican--blood sacrifice to a corn god--a woman who is about to have her heart given to the corn god goes off and has sex before the sacrifice, which ruins the rains. Since priestly magic keeps these heartless women alive after the sacrifice, she goes around feeling cold and eventually coming up with a way to bring the rains by eating the corn god's heart. An interesting story that might bear re-reading to track its themes of sacrifice and innocence and feeling.

Emily M. Z. Carlyle, "The Prince’s Shadow" (BCS 021): A blind woman gets recruited as the playmate of the prince, thus throwing her into courtly intrigue--the king shtupping his half-sister, the brother-in-law in the prison, the war against the pope, etc. Which is curious: this story might take place in our world (plus some minor magic) or not--and I wish it were clearer on that. Also there's a turn at the end where the woman regains her sight, which I wish was clearer. But otherwise this story follows the well-worn path of showing the blind as superhuman in other senses, so everything gets described from her POV.

Christopher Green, "Father’s Kill" (BCS 022): I'll be honest: there are so many podcasts out there (and so many stories) that I'm getting to the point where, if a story doesn't interest me, I might not pay all that much attention to it. Here's an example: it's a werewolf story that just didn't grab me.

Lightspeed and Nightmare 

Sylvia Spruck Wrigley, "Alive, Alive Oh": Husband and wife go to terraform a planet for a few years, but some disease/poison gets into them so they can never return home; and the wife's stories of the earth to their rebellious child lead to her dying by eating poisonous shellfish. Although the voice and nostalgia here were strong and direct, the whole "death by exoplanet clam" angle seemed silly to me; and all the weight of the protagonist's decision was on the end, where she chooses to commit suicide by poison sea.

Cast of Wonders (Protecting Project PulpTales to TerrifyStarship Sofa)

James Cooper, "There’s Something Wrong with Pappy": A really atmospheric piece about a family that's torn by the mother's death, with the daughter becoming interested in a model house that has some magical powers and the father slowly going bonkers / being replaced with a monster version. I'm not entirely sure I followed the plot, but the atmospherics are really good.

John Shirley, "Isolation Point": Some mysterious disease makes people want to kill each other when they get within 19 paces; but a guy who lives behind a fence meets a nomadic woman who wants to try some aversion therapy, which almost works. Curiously, Shirley mixes in the protagonist's journal entries, but I'm not sure why.

Terry Bisson, "Bears Discover Fire": Here's a story I can unabashedly recommend: an old-fashioned brother (he fixes his old, pre-radial tires) narrates his mother's slow fading while bears seem to be evolving. Here's a story that bucks a lot of trends: the sf element is on the fringe, the protagonist makes very few decisions (he cuts wood for the bears because he feels a connection)--and yet, it all works because of the deep character and thematic issues.

Ann Littlewood, "Scales Justice": A woman's brother is eaten by his prize python--so was it an accident or murder, by the ex-wife herpetologist or the new girlfriend, the snake charmer? I'd like to formally state that I dislike crime stories that end with the criminal being goaded into confession while cops wait in a backroom. But I like the protagonist detective's interest in her birds and dislike of her brother's snakes.

Ray Banks, "The Kindness of Strangers": A school photographer gets a girl out of a bad home-life, but his interest is dangerous. I heard this on Crime City Central, but it feels like a horror story--the crime at the end is simply one murder among many, as the protagonist goes on with his obsessions.

Scott Nicholson, "How to Build Your Own Coffin": A man spends a lot of time building a coffin for a test he pulls on women who want him to help him rob: they rob a place, then he asks the woman to nail the coffin shut on him--and when she says there's no reason to let him out, he knows he's found the perfect women. I like that end, but there's some unnecessary "what's he going to do with that coffin?" moments.

C. Hall Thompson, "The Eagle of Kuwahl": This story was printed in Indian Stories in 1950; and without knowing the particular magazine better, I still think the host is right to note how interesting it is that we have a story here where just about all the villainy is on the side of the white Americans and all the sympathy is with the Native American Cherokee. (There were only three issues of Indian Stories and this story appeared in the last, which had a cover featuring an Indian maiden protecting a white man from her dangerous tribe. So there's that.) The story itself is also curiously complex, with the protagonist and title character being torn between his hope of living in peace and his hope of keeping hold on his ancestral ground when white miners come for the gold.

Muriel A. Pollexfen, "Conjuror of the Clouds": One in a series of anti-British sky-captain and his pro-British nemesis. This was published in 1911; and the host makes much of the flying fortress issue (missing Verne's 1886 introduction of Robur and all the dime novel flying machines), probably because there isn't much else of interest in this simple piece of adventure fiction.

H. P. Lovecraft, "The Colour out of Space": A typical Lovecraftian yarn in some ways: mysterious meteor carrying some vague monster destroys isolated farm, poisoning the land and disintegrating/draining the family. It's a long but good example of Lovecraft's fusion of outer space science fiction and horror; and as with some stories, there's very little danger to the narrator. All the terror comes not from "it's going to get me" but from "this is very wrong."

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 72: Washington Irving, The Legend of the Two Discreet Statues (#129)

Washington Irving, "The Legend of the Two Discreet Statues" (1832/1851) from Washington Irving: Bracebridge Hall, Tales of a Traveller, The Alhambra:

Washington Irving has left a popular legacy two-stories wide, both of which have a supernatural element and so get taught first to kids. I mean, I think I read "Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle" sometime in elementary school, which is useful, since the basic tropes/images get reused a lot, in everything from cartoons (hello, Ducktales, you insatiable repackager of previous stories) to Belle and Sebastian songs. But that's about all we learn. Irving's other literary works, his international life and consular work in Europe, his attitude towards the Old World and Britain--all that is obscured by a headless horseman and a sleeping man.

So part of me wonders if this story got chosen as a way to bridge that gap: while we have an Old World setting--Irving was reportedly very interested in the Alhambra when he was in Spain--we also get a very folksy supernatural tale, and this one even involves a cursed ride, similar to "Sleepy Hollow." Or rather, we get two folksy tales. The first is the story of a good girl who finds a trapped Christian woman who has to play for the evil Muslim sorcerer who caught her; but on this one holiday, the trapped woman can leave and shows the girl where some treasure is, which is at the point where two statues point. Then, the second story is how dad gets the treasure and has to sneak it out before this greedy monk steals it all away. The monk knows about it because the poor man's wife confessed about it; and when she tells the monk the husband is sneaking it out of an area often considered cursed, the monk goes there and finds himself on a cursed donkey, chased by a pack of demonic dogs.

It's so Irving-y, that I wonder why this story doesn't get more play, both in school and in the wider culture. Is it because of the ambiguous depiction of religion? Knowing some of the anti-Catholic and anti-papal sentiment in the Anglo-American world, I can see how Irving would feel comfortable with this venal and hypocritical monk; whereas today, people might feel a little more uncomfortable about that. (Though the answer to this sort of worry is usually the same: if you don't want to be seen as arguing that all X are something, bring in some X who isn't. If I was adapting this for a movie, I'd consider adding in a sincere monk.) Oh, and, yeah, there's the whole "evil Muslim sorcerer who keeps a white woman as a slave."

There's also a little ambiguity around the poor man who is the protagonist of the second half. He's got many admirable qualities--he's funny and clever, and, in an epilogue, he's shown to be generous with his wealth. But that epilogue is almost necessary because he's pretty self-centered and greedy throughout. Yes, we may sympathize with a man who suddenly has to worry about theft (whereas he was too poor before); but the solution to that worry might just be to be generous with his other poor friends. That said, I think this argument doesn't totally work, since both "Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle" have pretty ambiguous protagonists: we remember Ichabod Crane as a hero, but he's anything but heroic; and Rip's whole character is that he wants to sleep and get away from his nagging wife. Irving rarely writes aspirational protagonists.

Perhaps the answer has also to do with the depiction of women here, where the moral seems to be that women can't keep secrets: the statues are discreet only because no one is paying attention to the fact that they are also literally pointing at the secret; the little girl learns of the treasure from a woman; the dad learns about it from the little girl (who naturally grows up to be married off); and the monk learns of it from the wife. "Gossipy women" might join "nagging wives" as a recurring motif of Irving's.

Finally, let's be totally honest: we teach Irving as this arch-American writer, so--along with forgetting his international, diplomatic life and interest--we focus on his American-set folk-stories.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 71: Fritz Leiber, Try and Change the Past (#134)

Fritz Leiber, "Try and Change the Past" (1958) related to American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s:

When the Library of America put out a collection of American science fiction--about which, yay!--they also organized a very interesting companion website. Do they do this for other works, and if not, why not? (Note to self: try to talk with whoever plans these projects over there.) The collection of novels from the 1950s includes Fritz Leiber's award-winning The Big Time, where the Spiders and the Snakes fight each other using time-travel technology. So, for the companion website, the LoA put up this story of Leiber's that takes place in the same universe: it involves the same mysterious time-travel armies and the same theory of time's Conservation of Reality--try to change the past and the timeline will find some way to fix itself.

Now, if that sounds somewhat familiar, you might be thinking of Alfred Bester's 1958 "The Men Who Murdered Muhammed," whereby time-travelers go back to change the past and find that, whoops, they can't do anything (except exile themselves). Maybe there was something in the water back then that made science fiction writers fatalistic? After all, in another six years, H. Beam Piper, who wrote extensively about time travel and changing history, committed suicide. I digress, but you get the point: time travel and fatalism are either a natural pair or strange bedfellows, depending on your view of history. As this story concludes, "how’s a person going to outmaneuver a universe that finds it easier to drill a man through the head that way [with a tiny meteorite that resembles a .32 bullet] rather than postpone the date of his death?"

This story is pretty thin--it's not a surprise that Bester was shortlisted for the Hugo for short story in 1959 and Leiber had to console himself with his Hugo for novel from 1958. Today, if a writer wrote this story, it would probably be used as a way to drum up interest in their novel--if it didn't sell, it would be posted free to the author's website. (Heck, maybe that's how Leiber used this story.)

The story takes a while to set out the rules of the universe--Snakes, Spiders, Conservation of Reality--and then goes on to show how a man tries to change the past and fails. So it's really just an anecdote to prove that Conservation principle. There's an eerie, Twilight Zone quality to the way that the universe refuses to be changed by one man; but there's also just a hell of a lot of depression. After all, this guy tries to save his life and comes to realize that he's been on a suicidal streak for a while.

Which brings us to the weirdness of The Big Time itself, which is a huge war novel. (I mean, the war is huge; the novel itself is pretty short.) Here are two sides named after animals, not principles or whatever else the war is about. As Leiber himself noted, he named them that "to keep them mysterious and unpleasant, as major powers always are, inscrutable and nasty." So here's great power and huge danger all in the service of--what? This story only touches on that aspect; but it's almost hard to imagine the guy who wrote the happy-go-lucky Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tales writing this depressing stuff. (It's easier once you remember that he also wrote Our Lady of Darkness, a novel about drunkenness and madness.)