Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The executives

Reading Marjorie Garber's The Use and Abuse of Literature, I came upon her brief discussion, in her introduction, of Auden's poem "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" (1939). Garber uses the "Poetry makes nothing happen" as part of her discussion about whether literature is or should be "useful"—and here she's addressing it through Auden and Yeats, both of whom had political, social and moral impulses guiding their work. I looked up the Auden poem in my copy of his Selected Poems:

. . . Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its saying where executives
Would never want to tamper . . .

That line about "executives" rang a bell. I half-remembered a line and thought it came from a poem by Robert Bly. I have a dozen or so of his poems in a hip 1975 collection of poems, Contemporary American Poetry, edited by A. Poulin (and owned previously by my former sister-in-law). Didn't find it there, but dug out the line using Google (I must have the poem in some other collection). Here's the complete poem:

Romans Angry About the Inner World

What shall the world do with its children?
There are lives the executives
Know nothing of:
A leaping of the body,
The body rolling—I have felt it—
And we float
Joyfully toward the dark places.
But the executioners
Move toward Drusia. They tie her legs
On the iron horse. “Here is a woman
Who has seen our Mother
In the other world.” Next they warm
The hooks. The two Romans had put their trust
In the outer world. Irons glowed
Like teeth. They wanted her
To assure them. She refused. Finally
They took burning
Pine sticks, and pushed them
Into her sides. Her breath rose
And she died. The executioners
Rolled her off onto the ground.
A light snow began to fall from the clear sky
And covered the mangled body.
And the executives, astonished, withdrew.
The inner world is a thorn
In the ear of a tiny beast!
The fingers of the executive are too thick
To pull it out.
It is a jagged stone
Flying toward us out of the darkness.

I'd like to ask Robert Bly: Did you have that line about "executives" from Auden in mind when you wrote this?

Monday, June 27, 2011

In which I talk only about The Quantum Thief

I finished Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief which was, I must agree, an impressive debut. For a string theorist, he writes well. (Joke. I have a daughter who's a physicist.) As other reviewers noted (I only read them after reading the novel), the book is rather laden with invented jargon, especially in the early going, which makes following the details quite a bit of work. Sometimes, you know what he means; sometimes, I'm convinced even he doesn't know what he means; I do think he's sometimes just having fun with us. (Really, she has a thermonuclear reactor in her hip?) I was unsure whether to take anachronistic phrasings (a computer-ship comments, "You go, girl!") as a sign that the author was being intentionally goofy or just careless. That character of the ship is perhaps too much of a common device, and it plays exactly the expected role once it's clear what that is. Therefore, much of the jargon and quasi-science serves to distract you from the more ordinary parts of the plot, though the plot as a whole is clever and interesting. And there are several intentionally silly moments—two otherworldly gamers dressed as Batman and Robin; the main character playing a part in a dance-death that spells out "memento mori"—along with sly genre references that let us know Rajaniemi is in on the joke.

Had I known it was part of a trilogy, I wouldn't have picked it up; I though I was signing on for a single book of not-extraordinary length. A lot gets resolved—the book mostly stands on its own—so I don't feel like I have to know "what's next." And it's not as if the characters made me want to stick around. The one interesting character, though, may be the subject of the next novel, if The Fractal Prince means who I think it does.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Clearly, too many books at once.

Details on each book are available on my Shelfari shelf, at right.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
I have about 80 pages left, but the pace has slowed considerably. Maybe it's me, but I think it's the book's structure, as MarItalicable has lapsed into a day-to-day recounting rather than providing overviews. Is all of this necessary? Not by my lights. My impression is that he's breaking the story down this way because he's got Malcolm's diaries to rely on, as well as news accounts (during Malcolm's final journey to Africa and the Near East).

More Jim Shepard
Read another story, "Your Fate Hurtles Down at You," from the collection You Think That's Bad. Again, you see in the details about four scientists studying the nature of avalanches in the Swiss Alps Shepard's research-backed approach to these stories, and in this one, I think he gets the balance right, with a moving story about the protagonist's loss of his brother in an avalanche years before and his reconnection with a young woman they both loved. Everything's just right until the end . . . or including the end, depending on how you look at it. The ending fits the story perfectly, but it's the same ending (jumping ahead in time to see his looming fate) Shepard employs in another story in the collection (a device also used in his previous collection), so, having read those other stories, the conclusion feels like an easy stunt. Too bad.

The Land at the End of the World, by António Lobo Antunes
I tried. Some beautiful writing; gorgeously long sentences. Nothing happening in the first chapter, however. I didn't have the energy.

The Man of Bronze
Till now, I've avoided rereading any Doc Savage adventures because I didn't want them influencing my homage to the character in my "Old Man" stories. I needn't have worried, at least not where this first Doc novel is concerned. Everyone runs around in a rather silly way; even in the opening scenes, the thing is borderline incoherent, the logic of how one scene connects to another absent as the narrative is obviously being constructed on the fly. As a figure, Doc is interesting—or rather Doc's abilities propel the story forward. Doc himself has no consistent voice. Dent seems unfamiliar with the slang of his own era, as Monk talks like someone trying out expressions. (Rudolph Fischer captures New York black slang beautifully in his stories, by contrast.) I've lost count of how many times Dent has referred to Ham as "waspish." Nearly every time the character's name appears, so does the adjective. Awful. The constant appearance of cool inventions and the kind of falling-down-the-stairs progress of the story do make it entertaining.

The Quantum Thief
This is one of those SF books in which you just have to keep up with the terms-for-things-that-don't-exist, as the narrator avoids info-dumping. I think I'm getting a fair amount of it, but, really, I'm not understanding some key concepts. I haven't done adequate reading in those futures in which everyone is uploaded or downloaded or whatever. It's fairly short, and it won a lot of praise, so we'll see how it goes. I'm about 30 pages in.

Barnacle Love
I can't decide about this book, though I'm halfway through. Each chapter takes place in a discrete time of the main character's life: he's a Portuguese sailor who was lost at sea, landed in Newfoundland, and stayedBold, partly by his own wish and partly by the machinations of others (though I found confusing exactly why he's such a victim). There's a gap between each section that's jarring; the thing needs more contiguousness, I think. After the last jump, I felt burdened by knowing I'd have to labor to fill in the space again, and I'm not sure I care enough to do so.

And as for writing . . .
I've gotten back to "Unearthed," now from the point of view of the character Qwerty. I haven't quite caught her voice yet, but it'll come. Switching to first person will allow me to have her think things that she won't have to reveal to "the Old Man" (in this story known as "Little Boss"), and I can maintain that narrative distance from him that's necessary to keeping him enigmatic, even as we see more of his humanity this time.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What is this thing?

Not sure what I'm writing. It's called, at present, "I Tell You, They Have Not Died, But Live." The piece that developed out of some story notes I dictated, it may be part of a larger project entitled Only Child. I'm looking to see whether any existing (draft) stories, such as my oldie "When We Have Our Mansions in Paradise," might be a part of the larger scheme.

"Unearthed," meanwhile, sits untouched lo these many months. I'll get back to it once I've polished "I Tell You."

A few weeks ago, I sent "My Story of Us Looking for My Comic Strip, by Franklin James Nemeth" to Stone Canoe, run out of Syracuse University. We'll see what they think.

In the Mail

Arriving in the mail today were George W.S. Trow's Within the Context of No Context (frequently mentioned last year everywhere I turned, including by writer Mark Pontin) and short story writer Christine Sneed's collection Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry (recommended by my friend—and "Old Man" fan—Scott Johnson). Additionally, under separate cover from the folks at Radio Archives, came (on the same day!) the first volume of the Doc Savage reprint/reproduction magazine, containing the novels The Man of Bronze and The Land of Terror. I've avoided reading any Doc Savage stories so as to keep my "Old Man" character distinct, but everything I have in mind for him now is quite clearly my own invention, so I think I'm comfortable now reading (or rereading) one of the original stories.

Still to come in the mail: In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems 1955–2007, by X.J. Kennedy. (Note my proper use of the en-dash.)


Still reading the Malcolm X biography. As he heads towards his assassination with every action he takes, my frustration builds: I want to catch his attention from out here in the future and warn him away from the coming bullets. But he seems to know what the future holds, and still he grips the wheel.

Reading some other things, too, but enough for now.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Recently: Mostly Malcolm

Much of my reading recently has been in the late Manning Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention; I'm coming up on halfway through. The book moved me to look at some videos of Malcolm online. The man impresses. How is it that I've come to discover him so late? My education—what was provided to me and what I've sought out—has clearly been lacking. And not only should we still mourn the loss of the man, we should also mourn the loss of the kind of intelligent public discourse he exemplified when at his finest.

Marable's book is quite good, though I have to triangulate more by reading the Autobiography and some more texts about the era.

Schmitz, two stories.

I read two James Schmitz science fiction stories, "The Witches of Karres" and "Novice," the latter featuring Telzey, a young girl of many gifts who appears in other Schmitz stories. Schmitz's stories are fun, accessible for young people yet written cleverly enough for adults. "Novice" recounts how Telzey's manipulative aunt schemes to take away the girl's sentient, endangered cat for government purposes. Telzey and the cat team up to undermine the plot and change the balance of power on this alien planet. "The Witches of Karres," which was later expanded, jumps through its plot hoops rather quickly, and the descriptions are so thin, you never get a strong sense of most of the settings. A ship's captain ends up taking possession of three young girls, each of whom has special powers, with the aim of returning these former slaves to their home planet. He's a paper-thin creation of utterly unclear motivations, but the mischievous girls bring life to the story, and their home planet introduces some nice twists to the tale.