Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Strangeness: Erpenbeck's VISITATION; Barrie's stage directions

First things first: I received today, from Asimov's, the galleys for "Unearthed." Good to see. I've got a week to return them.

Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck (trans. from the German by Bernofsky)
I picked this up from the library due to (I think) a recommendation in the Guardian. It has some stunning moments, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts. The novel, in short chapters alternating between tales of individual (typically unnamed) characters and a mysterious "gardener" who tends a lakeside German property, centers around a house and grounds; while the sections on the gardener don't advance a larger narrative, are sometimes bluntly repetitive, and become increasingly fanciful, the chapters on the people who live on the property are mostly tragic or just deeply sad, the sadness heightened by the arms-length narrative, the relative absence of dialogue, the lack of names, and the blurry, run-on writing style which, at moments, is evocative and elevating but which often sets up a kind of droning noise, producing a sameness of tone. I enjoyed some sections, appreciated the idea behind the novel's structure, and was impressed by the audacity of approach, but the overall effect left me disappointed and weary.

Mary Rose, J.M. Barrie 
I looked into this play while on a trope-finding mission: I'm investigating stories in which people vanish. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, tells a circular story about a young woman who, twice, mysteriously disappears while on a small island in the Hebrides. Unhelpfully (for my purposes), the story gives no explanation, though clearly some supernatural forces are at work in all this (and a ghost appears in order to emphasize this element). Much of the play is taken up with pleasant dialogue between characters who have little of consequence to say, and the drama lacks both tension and satisfying resolution. Oddest are the stage directions, which provide most of the narrative content regarding the character's interior lives (the dialogue doing little work in this regard); I can't imagine how this play looked when it was staged.

Some sample stage directions/commentary:

The room is in a tremble of desire to gt started upon that nightly travail which can never be completed till this man is here to provide the end

Followed immediately by:

The figure of Harry becomes indistinct and fades from sight. 

This is good:

These sounds increase rapidly until the mere loudness of them is horrible. They are not without an opponent. Struggling through them, and also calling her name, is to be heard music of an unearthly sweetness that is seeking perhaps to beat them back and put a girdle of safety round her.

How did anyone direct this play? 'Tis a puzzlement. There's also the expectation that an actor will demonstrate some accomplished knife-throwing at one point. Good luck with that.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Faulkner's humane masterpiece

At least, that's how Faulkner saw it, believing that The Sound and Fury, the first in his sequence of novels that took him far beyond what he'd previously achieved, was his greatest work. It's possible. Absalom! Absalom! is more dense and far-reaching, dredging even deeper pools of Southern misery; As I Lay Dying is the more sustained (albeit briefer) performance, the breathless work that has you in a chokehold from start to finish.

The Sound and the Fury, if it is stronger, is so because it's more humane. Much as I love As I Lay Dying, it's populated by grotesqueries, with only a few folks passed along the way emerging as humans we might care to know. Though Benjamin is "an idiot," Faulkner gives him a voice that's sensitive to human activity, and when we see him from the outside, the drooling child hunched at the table, we hardly recognize in his outward form the being we've come to know from within. Quentin's journey to suicide is broken up by scenes of foolishness, humor, decency, and confusion. Faulkner doesn't simply let darkness claim Quentin; rather, we see him choose his path, despite the liveliness of the world around him, a world in which he, to the last, participates. Jason is greedy and selfish, but Faulkner lets us see how difficult such a life is for Jason. He's never at peace, but constantly at odds with everyone; his vices give him no pleasure, leading him, I think, to mistake them for virtues. Lastly, there's Dilsey, who, though the focus of the final section, is never given a point of view position, and is even allowed to step offstage while the narrator waits for her to, say, retrieve an umbrella. It's clear that there's something of Faulkner's "race problem" in this: he can't get into the head of this character. His awareness of this, though, also makes him protective of her, moving him to elevate her. In the character descriptions in the appendix, written years later, she alone is given no textual comment. (I believe the sentence "They endured" does not refer to Dilsey but to all of the black characters—or, possibly, all of the characters. Dilsey is not a "they," and the way the text is set, below her name rather than beside it, indicates further that the descriptor is not meant for her alone. Why have no commentators mentioned this?)

The story's very end (prior to the appendix) felt a bit flat; something more needed to happen there, especially given how gloriously the prose takes off in Quentin's section. Otherwise, this is an astonishing work. I failed to read it in high school and had looked at sections of it over the years, but I'd never fully attempted it. Teaching Faulkner—and successfully taking on Absalom! Absalom! last summer—prepared me, so that I didn't find the novel difficult at all. (My one confusion, straightened out by a glance at a discussion of the novel, involved the presence of two characters named Quentin. I'm not sure Faulkner needed to do that.)

Monday, April 9, 2012

More misogyny from Marvel: Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk

When I mentioned to a friend how misogynistic this six-comic volume was, he said, "Comics were always that way." But this goes beyond the standard superhero imagery to something more awful.

I read the first issue of Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk, written by Damon Lindelof and illustrated by Leinil Francis Yu, when a student loaned it to me. Evidently, the comic experienced severe delays in its production; as a result, I saw no more of it until ordering this collection from the library. The first issue, in which the Wolverine from the Ultimate Marvel Universe is torn horizontally in half, seemed like a parody of a Marvel comic, since, Wolverine merely responded to this violation by going off in search of his legs (which he could smell half a mile off). The Hulk in the Ultimate Universe is a more brutal, careless version of the Hulk most of us know; in the comic The Ultimates, the Hulk was all id—including the libido left out of the standard Marvel version—and I appreciated that they'd taken the potential for harm coming from such a character more seriously. However, the Ultimates are also a more depressing team to read about, as all of the characters, including Captain America, seem damaged and unpleasant.

To the book at hand, though: As with the Ultimates books, no character fares well, male or female. Since it's established that neither Wolverine nor the Hulk can be killed, there's no sense of actual danger. The only character with whom you develop a little sympathy is Bruce Banner, but he's something of a whiner. There's one interesting moment in which a child lama suggests to Banner that it's the Hulk who turns into him, not the other way around—but rather than using that (clearly incorrect, in terms of origin) intriguing idea to explore the character, the notion is dropped, as is the wise Buddhist, as the comic jerks forward in its narrative.

There's the usual kind of objectification of the female form, which every woman portrayed voluptuously, but even this veers into parodic (or self-parodic) visuals. One woman's shirt nearly flies off when she reacts in surprise; in the next frame, she's buttoned up again. The women treat each other rather badly, as they both seem to be competing for Bruce/Hulk.

Then there's the issue of the little Tibetan town. When Wolverine arrives, he notices the women are missing. Turns out, they're all hanging with the Hulk. Rather, they're hanging on the Hulk. Whereas the men in the town all appear to be ordinary humans, all of the women are, evidently, voluptuous and of child-bearing age. For no given reason, they've all draped themselves alluringly around the room where the Hulk sits in lordliness (though doing nothing, it seems, except staying out of the way of the unconcerned Buddhist monks in the next room). There's no suggestion that the women are there against their will. Not a one of them speaks or reacts. It's hard to know who to blame more, Lindelof, the writer, for devising this sick male fantasy, or Yu, for his singularly single-minded view of Tibetan womanhood.

The book is profoundly stupid in many ways, but the outright and extreme misogyny strikes me as something Marvel shouldn't cotton to. I guess the appeal of having one of the creators of the plotless TV show Lost (whose writers never managed to write a decent episode for Kate, perhaps unsurprisingly) overwhelmed them, as well as the desire, once the book fell behind in production, to at least put out something, no matter how awful.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

"Old Man" stories

I've removed links to PDFs of my published fiction for now. Some may be restored in the near future. I figured the time will come, soon enough, when the "Old Man" stories, at least, should be collected and purchasable.

The next prequel, "Unearthed," will appear in the September 2012 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction, available in late July. One more story (the fourth) will follow, a sequel to the original "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down." That should appear sometime in 2013. The working title keeps changing.