Monday, May 31, 2010

Writing; Farmer; Borges

The writing: "Clockworks" is back from my reader. Now I'm convinced that it's good.

Philip José Farmer: I picked up Riverworld and Other Stories at a used book store last week, thinking the story "Riverworld" would be Farmer's introduction to the planet on which everyone who ever died on Earth finds themselves resurrected. Farmer's confusing introduction to the tale, however, reveals that, seminal-seeming title aside, the story was written a decade after his first foray into Riverworld, and is just one of the many novellas that make up the story. The other novellas are collected in the "novels," which aren't novels.

It starts off like a joke: Cowboy film star Tom Mix, Jesus, and an Israelite woman named Binthia are in a boat . . . The story doesn't actually improve upon the set-up. Jesus is named Yeshua, which is correct (that or Yeheshua would be the Aramaic form of the name; "Jesus" is the result of running it through Greek, Latin and English), but evidently Farmer assumed his readers wouldn't know that this character is Jesus, since none of the other characters can figure it out. Farmer keeps dropping huge hints, but still no one puts it together. It would be one thing if this weren't crucial, but it turns out that the whole story is about how no one figures out who he is (and he's miserable about who he is anyway), which lets Farmer finish the story with a pretty lame punchline that's only good if we didn't figure out the man's identity 80 pages earlier. It's like a print version of The Sixth Sense. Five minutes into that movie, I was saying, "This can't be the whole deal. I mean, obviously that guy's dead, but there's going to be more to it that that, right?" No. There wasn't. What torture.

Farmer's writing is adequate, but what's more frustrating is his inability to address any interesting topic that comes up. A host of fascinating problems are alluded to, but Farmer's got a supposedly rollicking plot (it isn't) to attend to. Maybe the books are better.

As for Borges: My eldest daughter's reference in a magazine piece to a Borges quotation has led me to some questioning. In his essay "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins," Borges informs us that Wilkins's entry has been, sadly, removed from the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Wilkins, a 17th-century clergyman (of course) and author, created a universal language; this leads Borges to reflect on various systems of classification. In particular, he refers to Dr. Franz Kuhn's mention of a Chinese tome entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, which classifies animals into categories which include "innumerable," "those that are included in this classification," and "those that have just broken a flower vase." Hilarious, but it sounds true enough to be possible. My daughter says Borges made it up. I did some checking. Kuhn is real, known for translating Chinese novels into German. However, Borges appears to have made up the book to which Kuhn refers—which didn't stop Michel Foucault from referring to it.

Ah, Borges.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Pullman's latest; etc.

Finished Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, a book that had me wondering throughout why Pullman had bothered. Then I read the blurb at the end that explained the book was part of a series of books by well known authors tasked with revisiting familiar myths. I suppose Pullman seemed like the obvious (in which "obvious" is a synonym for "most likely to provoke controversy") choice for a book about the life of Jesus because Pullman is vocally opposed to organized religion. Fair enough, but could he have at least approached the material with somewhat less transparent aims and a less silly premise?

In rewriting the tale of Jesus, he posits a twin brother named Christ. (See, so when people later talk about "Jesus Christ," it's ironic because the religion is really the result of both of them. Get it? There should have been a third brother named "H." . . . ) Jesus gets in trouble a lot as a little kid, and his brother Christ talks him out of these troubles by glibly using his familiarity with scriptures. Later, when Jesus takes up a public ministry, Christ, who has tried to talk his brother into the practicality of forming a "church"—never mind that that's not a Jewish term—is approached by "an angel" who persuades Christ to write down everything his brother says and does. This leads to some discussion about the difference between truth and history—truth winning out, in the eyes of the angel and Christ, who revises some of Jesus' statements to make them fit in better with the narrative he's constructing.

Jesus is still doomed to the cross, but since Christ is his twin brother . . . well, you can see early on where this is going.

Pullman spends a lot of time picking on the idea of "church," of organized religion. It's certainly as easy target (though even Pullman has to admit that the presence of the church in history has been a force for individual good as often as it's a force for institutional evil), and there's even a not-veiled reference to pedophile priests, but it's a clumsy aim for the story, which would have done better to focus on notions of how narratives get constructed from history. Why the twin is of use is questionable, as Pullman could have had any character fill the writer's role. Christ's implication in his brother's downfall (and "resurrection") just feels forced, especially since it's clear the brother doesn't believe what he finds himself saying. Pullman spends a lot of time simply retelling the gospel stories without their miraculous trappings, treating this as a new idea (as if Thomas Jefferson and a host of others didn't do the same thing), and he seems to think he's radically stirring the pot by proposing non-miraculous views of seeming miracles, as if that weren't an old and familiar way (among progressive branches of Christianity) of looking at the Bible. There's a nice scene in the Garden of Gethsemani with Jesus talking to God's silence (a conversation his brother never hears), but even that is hardly new.

In the end, this felt competent but dashed off, an easy buck for Pullman.

In my own work, I'm nearing completion of a readable copy of "Clockworks," which I hope to send to two readers this weekend.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Never ceases to amaze me: how one can move between polar positions on a story in progress. Even within the course of a day, I can't wait to get to work on it again, so hopeful do I feel, and (contrariwise) I account it rubbish. It's nothing so virtuous as humility, this second position. Its rather a species of doubt informed by fear. Thinking something is pointless is not the same as wondering whether oneself is the best person for the job.

And so: Back to it.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"Clockworks" continues to expand (and deepen, I believe). Heading for 14K words. It's possible that the piece will get tighter at the next revision stage, but I wouldn't be surprised if, for everything I remove, more materials shows up. At this point, the climactic scene needs the most work, as it still contains some false starts and uncompleted actions.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Still working toward an intact draft of "Clockworks." Some sections have seen multiple revisions. Some remain sketchy. Most of what needs to be tossed has been tossed, but some (small, I think) pieces are missing, and nothing is in close to final shape except perhaps the first page. I'm at about 12.5 K words; the final piece will be around there, it seems. However, I wouldn't be surprised if some new moments that suddenly seem needed bubble up in the course of revision. I'm looking forward to having this phase completed so I can go over this creature line by line and word by word. There'll probably be two go-rounds of that before I send it to the friends who've helped with the editing in the past.

Meanwhile, I've started reading Philip Roth's The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography, which directly (maybe) confronts (kind of) the issues of one's biography in the construction of fiction. To this point in the book, Roth has been addressing himself to Nathan Zuckerman, the fictional version of himself from some of his novels.

Oh: And hello to any folks from the Pulp Factory who stop by!

Saturday, May 8, 2010


Finally got around to finishing Nella Larsen's Passing. A writer of the Harlem Renaissance, Larsen produced only two novels and a few stories. The short novel reminded me of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, a book full of thoughtful revelations that has too many essayistic qualities to be a fine novel. Larsen's book is actually better, in that there's a narrative arc derived from the interactions of particular characters, but much of the book's dialogue involves the stating of ideological or ethical positions. Very little happens in the book, which moves slowly, much of it taken up with interior reflection by the narrator, and said reflection involves pausing the course of events to let thought processes be fully spelled out. The male characters are not credible. The protagonist never stands back enough from herself to allow us to see the particularities of her own situation. Though the title of the novel refers to how American blacks "passed" among whites, the narrator, Irene, spends more time observing with horror how her friend Clare has passed than detailing how, at times, she's done it herself. She makes oblique references, in conversation, to how blacks can not only identify one another but also how they can't spot an "ofay," a white who's trying to disguise his or her racial identity; however, the narrator never lets us in on the finer points of how to remain hidden or how to find the fakes. It does offer, at least for this white reader, some fascinating insights into a cultural moment, but it doesn't say as much as it should. (In this, it's weaker than Gilman's "first-wave feminism" novel, which, though bogged down in exposition, is more bold and direct in detailing the differences between men and women and the difficulties in their attempts to live together. Gilman's book also has the fun conceit of a land which has seen no men in centuries.)