Saturday, July 31, 2010

What's done, what's undone

Regarding Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, I'll quote from my post at the Asimov's forum:

Finished yesterday. I think it's a brilliant novel. Whether or not a particular reader enjoys it is a different issue; the thing is a great work, both entertaining and challenging, making me both feel and think. The resolution does tie together everything--and you see it coming, that Bulgakov is going to pull the past and present together somehow--and is a prompt for further discussion.

One has to discard traditional theological notions, given that Satan/Woland isn't evil and the Pilate/Jesus story is laden more with philosophical and humanistic concerns than religious ones (in fact, religion is avoided in the novel); however, I see a straight line between this narrative and Milton's. Just as Satan hopes to undo God's plan (and for reasons Milton helps us understand) in
Paradise Lost, so Woland seeks to undo bureaucracies, systems that stifle the artist, selfishness and even rationalism. He inserts himself into the Soviet scheme and, with his wilder associates, damages whatever he can.

The novel is subtly structured, with its protagonists slowly revealed and its agenda unclear for much of its length. The writing, especially in the sections supposedly written by the Master, is at times beautiful but at all times skillful. The narrator, both in the book proper and in the Master's tale of Pilate, is very much a presence, sometimes apologizing for what he can't explain or perceive.

It did take me a long time to read the book. It's not a page-turner, but it's well done throughout and worth the time. Only one section, "Satan's Ball," felt like it needed a trim. What a strange, strange book.

I'll have something to say about my story "Clockworks" next week.

Tangentially, given that both "Clockworks" and "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" contain a character who is an homage to Doc Savage, I want to mention Warren Ellis's Planetary, a comic book series. I read the first volume a few days ago. Sadly, my library does not have all of the subsequent volumes. In any case, Planetary contains a character named "Doc Brass" who is clearly based on Doc Savage ("The Man of Bronze"). Visually, he's the spitting image of the James Bama version of Doc on the Bantam paperbacks. There's no mention of "thanks for the trademark steal" in the front of the book, but I suppose Wildstorm Comics, owned by DC, had permission to use it, given DC's flirtation with the character over the years.

I've been reading short stories by James Lasdun.

I mostly finished a draft of a new story, "Unimagined." It is not a "genre" piece. A few gaps in the narrative remain, though I know what goes where. As often happens, I'd started the story thinking it was about one thing, but once I figured out who the characters were, it became about something else and ended in a way I didn't see coming . . . which is partly the point of the title.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

More reading than writing

I just finished Logicomix, a graphic novel about Bertrand Russell's attempts to find a way of talking with absolute certainty about mathematics and logic—and how that lifelong project relates to what we can say, with any certainty, about morality and judgment. The story is interesting both intellectually and emotionally; in addition, the authors add a metafictional layer, letting us see the process by which they worked through how to narratively address abstruse concepts. Ultimately, the framing story becomes a way to understand Russell's story (which itself is framed by Russell as a story told to help answer whether the United States should involve itself in the second European war). Excellent, literate work; the artwork is restrained yet expressive, giving the feel of a cartoon documentary.

I'm still reading The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov's posthumously published novel of the 1930s-era Soviet Union. The book combines the moral urgency of Dostoevsky, the operatic largeness of Hawthorne, the goofiness of Gogol and the paranoia of Kafka via a tale of the devil and his assistants wreaking havoc in Moscow. It's entertaining and exciting.Though I've linked to the most recent translation (by Pevear and Volokhonsky), my copy is the Vintage edition, translated by Burgin and O'Connor.

"On the Brink of That Bright New World," by Robert Reed (and first published in Asimov's), the first story in his collection The Cuckoo's Boys, is quite a kick-in-the-chest way to start a science fiction collection. It gets at a familiar theme—regardless of what changes come in the future, humans will continue to behave in the same way—through a story that makes the them the plot. "Here's what I did while the rest of you were focused on messages from space," an unrepentant man tells a helpless scientist. Reed also lets us see—vaguely, through a train window—that the larger world hasn't changed either. I'm looking forward to the rest of the book.

I've set aside the next chapter in my "old man" sequence, but only for a time. I need to do more research before proceeding, but I'm also interested in writing some other fiction. I started something that could be much longer, though I haven't gotten very far on it yet. I'm anxious to hear back about "Clockworks."

Additionally, I have a lot reading to do to prepare for the school year. I just picked up Henry IV (having first dyslexically ordered Henry VI), which I haven't read since college. Fun stuff.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A book gone wrong

What went wrong from conception to execution with historian Margaret MacMillan's Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History? The premise is simple enough—perhaps too simple and ill-formed: history is, to borrow a phrase, everyone's "last refuge," used to promote peace, fight for justice, defend indensible actions and make claims for land or power. One could easily make the same argument for religion, which might make for a more interesting book since in religion you're with with elements inherently open to interpretation. MacMillan doesn't exactly say that "history" has the same plasticity, as events themselves can't be argued with, but people and principalities are selective with their history . . . when they aren't outright distorting or elliding facts to shape the narrative toward their benefit.

Hardly a thesis against which one can argue.

The issue, perhaps because of this loose thesis, is with the book's structure. Each chapter seems aimed at approaching a different way history is misused, but I couldn't identify any difference between the chapters. There's repetition, as MacMillan goes to the same historical events for her examples, and the chapters become laundry lists of how countries (and un-countried populaces) manipulate their people by how their tell their histories. The process by which the book was assembled comes into question when you read the same aphorism twice within a few pages. Too, it's obvious who's buttering her ideological bread, which weakens the tone.

MacMillan is a Canadian professor whose book Paris 1919 won praise and awards. It has to be put togethere better than this, which reads like an inflated essay.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

More submitting

A third story is out for consideration: "My Story of Us Looking for My Comic Strip, by Franklin James Nemeth" is at TriQuarterly, which is now an online-only journal. I made a dozen minor alterations before sending it out.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Short story reading; Verne's journey

From Thomas Lynch's Apparitions and Late Fictions, I read three short stories. They're something of a blur to me, and I've returned the book to the library, so I can't summon the titles. The blurriness is due to a commonality of tone and a similarity of subject. Lots of deaths and funerals. The author has written a book about the job of running a funeral home, so this materials has infiltrated his subsequent fictions, it seems. The writing was good, and one story, which had won a mystery award, had a nice way of delaying its surprises.

From James Lasdun's collection It's Beginning to Hurt, I read his prize-winning "An Anxious Man." A few moments and descriptions struck me as common, and some observations seemed obvious, but the story grew on me, the protagonist, a weak soul, shaped the events and outcome nicely, and the narrative became troubling, then harrowing. I wanted something more from the ending. Lasdun suggested some of that "more" with a late line meant to echo and earlier moment, but I didn't find the resonance convincing. Lasdun is English, but now lives here.

I finished Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. I've seen the old movie version (James Mason and Pat Boone? Is that right?) and recall: the large, quiet Icelander who assists the professor and his nephew; them being trapped in a large chamber; their expulsion from the volcano. I was surprised to find the book actually ended that way. Verne spends a great deal of time being very precise and scientific (though of course the scientific theories were shifting even as he wrote, and he added a goofy scene to the book to accomodate new information), which is why the utterly preposterous moments seem even less believable. And there are plenty of preposterous moments, usually involving tremendous falls, racing at great speeds, or being propelled upward. Had he been writing in the present day, he'd have had his characters outrun a fireball. They all should have been killed many times over (or at least lost their provisions a lot sooner). What Verne does get right is a kind of feverish tone for his narrator, who is either terrified or excited much of the time. His fears, and his experiences of vertigo, are captured well, and are the best moments in the tale.