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Archive for the ‘Essays and reviews’ Category

coralineOkay, here’s the thing: I’ve never believed a single word Neil Gaiman has written.

Wow.

I can already detect a collective gnashing of teeth as Gaiman’s legion of fans leap to his defense, their counter-attack, predictably, hysterical, vitriolic and ad hominem. Shoot the messenger and deal with the actual, y’know, message later.

I know what I’ve just said might seem a tad critical and extreme at first glance but, as my hero Bill Hicks would say, hear me out.

Clearly, Neil Gaiman is effective at what he does. He sells a ton of books, has earned a bevy of prizes and a significant number of people await each new Gaiman release with genuine pleasure and anticipation.

All to the good.

And speaking for myself, I’ve found Gaiman’s stuff, for the most part, diverting, and he writes in a straightforward, unpretentious style. But upon opening any Neil Gaiman offering I’m immediately struck by the realization that this is not a tale set on Earth Prime—there is an unworldly feel to the material. Indeed, nearly everything I’ve read by the man distinguishes him as someone who, in one way or another, is a purveyor of modern day fairy tales and moral fables. But no one truly believes fairy tales or thinks they have any basis in reality. Do they?

And therein lies the problem.

That lack of credibility produces, I would argue, an emotional distance, a safety margin from which readers can observe the action without being unduly concerned with the fate of the characters. When your audience is granted that kind of dispensation, they stop closely identifying with the people at the heart of the story, stop caring. A potentially gripping yarn becomes merely entertaining. Good, escapist fun.

Doesn’t that pretty much sum up the Gaiman oeuvre?

While he tells a decent story, there’s not the kind of intimacy and closely observed detail that ramps up our emotional investment to another level. Think of the work of masters of the macabre Richard Matheson or Charles Beaumont. They frequently dealt with fantastic subject matter but in their best efforts (see: “Matheson’s “Mute” or Hell House) there is an unnerving sense that this creepy account could be real…and our concern for what the characters are enduring becomes all the more genuine and heartfelt.

Give him credit, Neil Gaiman is conversant with contemporary cultural touchstones, borrowing shamelessly from mythology (Old Gods and Sandman) or re-imagining familiar standards (Coraline). But, to me, none of his work succeeds at suspending disbelief. And while I see a lot of archetypes—vampires, werewolves, ghosts, the usual suspects—I don’t, frankly, detect much innovation or originality. Tropes and stock monsters, employed in a standard story arc, with (almost invariably) happy, satisfying resolutions. Gaiman’s approach to writing is quick, punchy, visual; perfect for graphic novels. Illustrative but not particularly deep or insightful. His characters speedily sketched, unceremoniously thrust into peril, even mortal danger.

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife…

(First line of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book)

Ah, yes, The Graveyard Book. In that 2008 novel Gaiman presents us with the story of a young human child raised in a cemetery by a variety of well-meaning ghosts and supernatural creatures. Clever, but by Page 50 my interest in the central character, Bod, was purely academic: how would he be successfully re-integrated into human society? The rest of the book zipped past in a blur.

Likewise, I was almost immediately turned off by The Ocean at the End of the Lane. A more recent effort (2013), it’s told (mostly) from the point of view of a child whose observations are so mature and thoughtful as to defy credulity. I disliked the book from its initial pages and it never really caught on with me. Finished it out of a sense of obligation, not joy.

It strikes me that Neil Gaiman is a perfect author for our sped up, ADHD-afflicted society. He writes moderately well, with visual acumen, setting the table quickly, not bothering with niceties like realism or verisimilitude. His fans will say I’m being unfair—after all, with fairy tales the effect is more important than the nuts and bolts of narrative (and perhaps they’re right).

But there’s a fine line in dark fantasy and horror literature, a point where the author must create the impression that what we’re reading is actually taking place, expend every effort to ensure we’re fully immersed in the story, crying and bleeding along with the protagonist, experiencing their dread as the knob starts turning, the door inching open. If we have no faith in their ordeal, no stake in what’s happening to them, the writer has failed us, failed to devise a scenario that is, at once, dramatic and nerve-rending and, despite our best efforts to think otherwise, believable and authentic.

Personal, intimate horror. What really goes on in the dark.

That’s what scares us and leaves a permanent mark on our psyche.

Fairy tales are fine for children, but surely adults require narratives of more depth—aesthetically sound and literate and, at the same time, unrelenting and provocative, seeking to exact an emotional toll, while defying and frustrating expectations.

It’s time Neil Gaiman started writing for grownups.

People old enough to know that in life there are no happy endings…and no such thing as a great artist who stoops to please.

figure

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boneclocksI’m still pondering James Wood’s rather unenthusiastic review of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks.

I read the review about an hour ago and now that I’ve had a chance to shower and clear my head, I’d like to get some thoughts down, try to sum up why I think Mr. Wood—and a number of other critics—have missed the point. Let me make clear, I have nothing against Wood, I think he’s a thoughtful, articulate reviewer, a smart man…I just don’t always agree with him.

There’s a taint, if I can put it like that, to his review, a whiff of innuendo. Mitchell’s a good storyteller, he allows, and The Bone Clocks is admittedly “entertaining”, but…

But what?

Well, apparently, The Bone Clocks lacks coherence, there’s a dearth of human significance and, then, near the conclusion of his critique, Mr. Wood finally lets the mask slip and his biases show:

Gradually, the reader begins to understand that the realism—the human activity—is relatively unimportant…the emphasis is shifted away from the human characters toward the supernatural goings on, and the human characters become mere decoders of the peculiar mystery that has befallen them: detectives of drivel. The fantasy rigs the narrative, so that there is something wearingly formulaic whenever Mitchell stages, as he regularly does, a spot of ‘realistic’ skepticism.”

I’m not sure how much fantastic fiction Mr. Wood has read but he must be aware of some of its noble practitioners, Kafka and Borges, Maupassant and Poe. While Mr. Wood opines that “supernatural” skullduggery detracts from the human story, I wonder if he would say the same thing if he was reading a novel or short story by one of the authors I just cited.

What I like most about Mr. Mitchell’s work is that it refuses to acknowledge genre constraints; he delights in playing with tropes and is fearless about introducing SFnal elements to his narratives, creating a vast and varied universe that astonishes literally at every turn.

Mr. Wood’s final assertion, that The Bone Clocks is a “theological allegory”, reflecting a “bleak Gnosticism” must have made the author laugh out loud.

Really, Mr. Wood?

I suspect David Mitchell’s bookshelves are extensive and a good deal more eclectic than James Wood’s. He (Mitchell) is also of a generation whose childhood was enlivened by tales of the mysterious and macabre, whether in books, movies or on TV. From “Dan Dare” to “Dr. Who”; Lord of the Rings to the magic of Ray Harryhausen. All of those influences going into the creative hopper…and what emerges is a mashup that doesn’t discriminate between “literary” and  “genre” fiction, employing elements of both, worshipping at the altar of neither.

Maybe that’s why a number of science fiction scribes I know are less than approving of Mr. Mitchell’s body of work. They think he’s nicking their best material without giving due credit, while some of literary crowd (like James Wood) would accuse him of slumming every time he goes off reservation and presents them with a “bad-faith tussle with a fantastic assailant who has already won”.

I’ll admit, initially I found the supernatural elements in The Bone Clocks a bit off-putting. I’d read no reviews or advance articles on the novel, not wanting to risk spoilers (and you won’t find any in this piece, I promise). The book startled me, intrigued me, then absolutely drew me in. Imagine a collaboration between Jonathan Carroll and Thomas Pynchon, both operating at the top of their form. There are conspiracies and mazes and secret societies and psychic shootouts…but, sorry, I swore I wouldn’t ruin the fun for you.

If The Bone Clocks was a song, it would have “crossover hit” written on it in big, block letters. The novel defies mere description and resists being slotted into any safe, comfortable niche.

Like its author, it is ambitious, ridiculously intelligent, culturally attuned, charming, witty and serenely confident.

David Mitchell is a marvel.

He’s managed to surprise us, yet again.

What a guy.

 

 

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Junk1I recently read a volume of Wallace Stevens’ selected poems (The Emperor of Ice Cream and Other Poems; Dover Publications, 1999) and one piece in particular stands out in my mind.

“Anecdote of the Jar” appears about halfway through the book. Like all the best poetry, it manages to be, simultaneously, deceptively simple and yet enormous in its implications.

I can’t cite the poem in its entirety without paying a stipend to Stevens’ estate (and more power to ’em), but I can tell you that it succeeds, in three brief stanzas, at revealing humankind as the ultimate invasive species, spreading our cargo cult of garbage and useless detritus to the farthest reaches of our planet. Pepsi cans and cluster bombs dropping like manna from the heavens, a “north Atlantic gyre” of Walmart bags and accumulated human waste and debris, literally an island of filth to navigate around, map and study.

Understand, I know nothing of the genesis or conception of “Anecdote of the Jar”, this is purely my take on it, a highly subjective interpretation. The poem was likely written in the 1920’s or 30’s, long before the full scope of our crimes against the environment was apparent. Was Stevens’ prescient, somehow aware of what was coming? I’m not qualified to answer. I do know that quite often poets are like a canary in a coal mine, detecting dangerous elements and tendencies within our society the rest of us either don’t or (more likely) won’t acknowledge.

Junk3Just by its mere presence on a hillside in Tennessee, a jar, the simplest and most basic of objects, defeats that ancient landscape, forever marring it. Nature, in an instant, overtaken and violated, no longer pristine, untouched by human hands.

I think “fair use” permits me to quote two crucial lines:

The wilderness rose up to it/And sprawled around, no longer wild…

That’s it.

That’s what happens when you drop a fast food cup in the woods or toss your garbage from a moving vehicle. A single thoughtless act that spoils the scenery for the rest of us.

Remember the backpacker’s credo: Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.

And, even so, I beg you, make sure you walk on tiptoes…

Junk2

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SnowdenA couple of months ago AdBusters put out the word that they were looking for new visions to empower and inspire the eco-warriors and Occupiers who have lost their passion and need a fresh injection of ideology and righteous anger to motivate them and rekindle their energies.

I gave it some thought and wrote up a manifesto of sorts, a call to arms, an appeal for a “slow revolution”.

Dutifully sent it off to AdBusters around the end of February…and never received so much an an acknowledgement in reply.

Guess they didn’t like what I had to say.

Well, I’m attaching my “Blueprint For a Slow Revolution” to this post and you’re free to download and peruse it. Pass it on to whoever you like, see if it provokes any discussion.

Frankly, I think it’s a deeply subversive and dangerous document.

Read on:

Blueprint for a Slow Revolution

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Journal 1I’ve kept a journal since 1996. Not regularly, not religiously—Samuel Pepys, I am not.

Usually the entries consist of a few hundred words, an abbreviated emotional weather report. The problem is, I don’t often write about being happy, content with my lot in life. No, it seems like the only time I want to be a diarist is when I feel the need to vent, blow off steam, expound about my frustration and fury and self-loathing and disappointment. Anyone having nothing more than my journals to go on would think me a very petty, thin-skinned, peevish bastard with the prickly disposition of a rabid hedgehog. It is, if I may say, a very distorted portrait.

But on my 49th birthday I started keeping a daily journal, a comprehensive record of “My 50th Year”. It was supposed to conclude on my 50th birthday but there were some pages left over in the second notebook so I probably have about another six weeks’ worth before I wrap things up. I think these two volumes, which will eventually clock in at around 450 handwritten pages, give a far more well-rounded depiction of the life and times of yours truly.

However, at this point I must confess I’m second-guessing myself, wondering if I’ve done the right thing. Because I have to say, there are definite drawbacks to keeping a daily record of your…activities.

First, one has to determine what to put in and what to leave out. Usually I write in my journal quite late in the day so I tend not to be too long-winded. I don’t waste time composing my thoughts, just scribble down what I’m feeling at that moment, what events of the day stand out most. It’s all very internalized, world news and current affairs largely superfluous. I might have alluded to Nelson Mandela’s death last month but, to be honest, I’m not sure. Authorial license or a shameful omission?

Second, one has to assess just how candid and uninhibited one can be. Obviously a journal or diary is intended to be personal and private, but I’m also aware of how many authors and artists have had their most intimate thoughts exposed to the world (with or without their consent). If I don’t end up destroying these notebooks before my death, I have to count on them being read by some curious party. How much detail regarding my life do I want to impart to a complete stranger?

Finally, when keeping a regular journal you soon come face-to-face with just how bloody boring and without incident Journal 2your life is. I mean, I’m no Graham Greene, jet-setting about, playing baccarat with Kim Philby one day and having lunch with Fidel the next. I’m not even in the league of John Cheever, who wrestled with his sexuality and emotional highs and lows with admirable clarity and candor. I’m more like, well, Walter Mitty—living in fantasy realms of my own invention, with little relation to reality. My self-made universe, fraught with wonky physics, shifting dreamscapes and enticing might-have-beens. When I’m deeply immersed in a writing project, I spend most of my waking hours there.

The transition back to the real world can be unsettling.

I’m a full-time author, stay-at-home husband and father. I don’t really do much of anything. I write (obsessively). I hang out with my family. I read. I watch the occasional good movie. Listen to music. Socialize (infrequently). That’s it. Try journaling about that for over a year. Sitting down each night, opening the notebook to a new, unmarked page and coming up with yet another pithy way of expressing “Wrote today, not much else”. It’s a daunting task, even for someone blessed with my fertile imagination.

I’ve taken to heart Flaubert’s advice to be “regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work”. Perhaps too much to heart.

This past year of being a daily diarist has opened my eyes. In my view, my life has become too constricted, too orderly and mundane. I can’t begrudge the hours I spend engrossed in a project but I must do something about the time when I’m “off duty”. Now that our sons are no longer at home and I’m no longer their steward and caregiver, I can direct my energies toward other interests.

Certainly the desire to travel has taken on new significance. Currently, we’re saving money for a trip, putting away whatever we can so that, one day, we can take off and see some place we’ve never been. Locales we’ve always dreamed of visiting.

Rome. Athens. Constantinople.

Thermopylae. Epidaurus. Troy.

Time to spread my wings, seek inspiration farther afield.

My first view of the Mediterranean or the Aegean, storied seas celebrated by the likes of Homer and Shelley and Byron. Possessing a blue, they say, like no other.

What dreams, what tales and verse and images, will our travels stimulate?

Will the ancient, historical lands we traverse seem strange, exotic…or will it be more like coming home?

wall (abstract)

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Picture 2To me, he was the best.

When you read a Richard Matheson novel or story you believe it and you believe it because his characters are real people, reacting as real people would when placed in an extreme situation or confronted by the uncanny. Robert Neville, the protagonist of I Am Legend, is the sole survivor of a worldwide plague, the last living human on a planet of vampires. But Neville is no square-jawed, ass-kicking hero, he is a lonely man, his isolation gradually driving him mad. One day, and he knows this, he will simply open the door, walk out and let the waiting creatures take him, ending his suffering. The Shrinking Man’s Scott Carey loses more than his height as his mysterious affliction gradually reduces him to microscopic proportions. He battles gamely to retain his masculinity, his identity and, finally, in life and death battles with predatory animals and insects, his very existence.

More than any other writer of dark fantasy except, perhaps, Ray Bradbury and his friend and colleague Charles Beaumont, Matheson wrote tales that make your heart ache. As you read the story “Little Girl Lost” you experience that poor father’s panic when he realizes his daughter is calling out to him from a place beyond his reach. “Mute” and “Steel” are incredibly sad, affecting stories, offering only thin glimmers of hope, a fleeting chance of redemption.

He and Beaumont were critical influences on my early writing—I knew them first through their work on “The Twilight Zone”. Only later was I lucky enough to scoop up their short story collections (both thrive in the short format) in affordable (usually used) editions, reading their tales over and over again. About twelve years ago I packaged up some of those collections and sent them to Mr. Matheson for signing (along with a self-addressed stamped envelope). He was good enough to oblige and now those books are the treasures of my collection.

I think Stephen King said something along the lines of Matheson deserving credit for taking horror out of the moors and forests and bringing it into the suburbs. I can’t think of a single good horror writer from the past thirty years who wouldn’t consider him the dean of dark fantasy and cast their eyes downward at the mere mention of his name.

And let’s not forget, he could also turn his hand to other kinds of writing. I’ve read several of his western novels and they stand up well compared to the rest of the field. He had a lifelong interest in matters relating to the power and potential of the human soul. He took his researches into the paranormal seriously and the depth of his knowledge manifests itself in what I think is his finest novel, Hell House. His was an active, seeking mind, restless and sharp and, at least when it came to his work, unsentimental and occasionally pitiless. That’s part of what made him great.

I feel a real sense of loss tonight. Yes, I know he was eighty-seven years old and his time had come. I desperately wish I’d had a chance to meet him, exchange a few words with him. I doubt I would have said anything remarkable or cogent. Of all the Big Boys, I suppose there’s only Harlan Ellison and one or two others left.

There’s a strong sense, a la the demise of Bradbury and Harryhausen, of an era coming to an end.

The King is Dead! The King is Dead!

Long will we mourn his passing.

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"Gulag"After a long drive across the frozen wastes of Lake Baikal, Frazier arrived at a long-abandoned prison camp near the town of Topolinoe. The camps along the Topolinskaya Highway were among the most dreaded destinations in Stalin’s gulag, the prison system that claimed the lives of more than a million people during the height of the Great Terror in 1937 and 1938. Frazier walked through one of the barracks where inmates starved and froze in the Siberian winter: “This interior offered little to think about besides the limitless periods of suffering that had been crossed off here, and the unquiet rest these bunks had held.” As always, Frazier locates the apt historical anecdote that captures the horror with precision. He tells the story of two child prisoners who were given a pair of guard-dog puppies to raise, then struggled to find names for them: “The poverty of their surroundings had stripped their imaginations bare. Finally they chose names from common objects they saw every day. They named one puppy Ladle and the other Pail.”

-Joshua Hammer (from his New York Times review of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia)

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