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.

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