Saturday, July 28, 2012

Cozying up to Conrad: LORD JIM

One thing I love about a Joseph Conrad tale is that, at the outset, you have no idea where it's headed; every tale that I've read is structured differently than every other, and although each story has something to say about the darkness hidden and revealed in human nature, Conrad always comes at this from a different angle.

Marlow, the same man who narrates "Heart of Darkness," narrates Lord Jim. You thought he was voluble in Darkness? He goes on at such length in Lord Jim, Conrad must, in his introduction to the work, address the issue raised by the book's critics of whether someone could believably talk for so long or do so and still possess any listeners. (Conrad suggests—surely as a kind of "up yours" to his critics—that everyone likely stopped at various points for meal breaks.)

Though the novel begins with anonymous narration, it shifts, after introducing us to the somewhat vacuous Jim, to Marlow's account, jumping ahead in time, past some crucial event which Marlow slowly gets around to revealing. (His listeners must know how the event in question played out, at least at the larger level if not personally for Jim; as such, you can't see Marlow as actually withholding information from his true audience. We alone, the readers, are in the dark.) This shipboard crisis is the strongest section of the novel, with Marlow allowing us Jim's own account of his actions (and inactions). Conrad is always great when dealing with suspenseful marine situations, and there's nothing to match it in the rest of the novel, largely because the rest of the action occurs on land. A late event does involve a split in action between land and water, but we're inland, not in open ocean.

The plot, such as it is, involves the fallout from this early crisis of Jim's—where does he go and what does he do to redeem himself? Marlow helps him find work, but Jim's past always pursues him. Then, Kurtz-like, he takes charge in a jungle paradise (the politics of his position are confusing, as there are powers within powers at work) until, in ways that are shatteringly unfair, Jim's past returns, along with fellow whites who possess no honor at all. Jim, a "Romantic" soul, is undone and missteps. Marlow seems to take the position that Jim is wrong in his concluding actions, though, as he repeatedly says, Jim is "one of us."

The novel would have been helped by being tighter. Conrad is terribly repetitive at times, saying something three nearly identical ways when one or two would have done. Additionally, Marlow stops after nearly every moment of speech or action to draw our attention past the action to the seemingly cosmic aspect of human behavior against a chaotic backdrop. It becomes ridiculous quickly, with every minor act leading to overwrought, if often lovely, statements.

Nevertheless, Conrad has much to say here about our sense of fairness and honor, what we think the world owes us and what we might owe the world. Jim remains an unclear figure, a man who never becomes fully formed—unless it's in his final, hopeful gesture.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Still brilliant after all these years: Jacob Bronowski

"All those who imagine take parts of the universe which have no been connected hitherto and enlarge the total connectivity of the universe by showing them to be connected."—J. Bronowski

A note to a friend in which I quoted from Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, the book and TV series from the '70s, led me to look up more about the man himself, which took me to a series of Yale lectures from 1967 entitled The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination. It's a library copy, but I may need to purchase the book so I can return to it, so packed is it with insight. In its relative directness yet density of ideas, it resembles Blake, a fitting comparison, since Bronowski was a Blake scholar and refers to him throughout this text.

Bronowski's aim, he announces, is to pursue what Kant started before, as he sees it, Kant was derailed; to wit, he wants to construct a philosophy that takes into account the limitation of human senses. Focusing (no pun intended) on human eyesight (and roping notions of imagination and "insight" into the equation), Bronowski examines how everything we perceive is, rather than directly experienced, interpreted. We know in part, and what partial data we receive, we form into something meaningful. Bronowski moves from there into examining how science itself is an interpretive, imaginative act. Contra the notion of a "theory of everything," Bronowski thinks we can only have theories of particular segments of the universe; in fact, there is no one equation nor one scientific idea that can encompass everything. In this, science is like art, always have limitations, a frame, into which some things, but not all things, can fit.

Bronowski also argues that science itself doesn't teach us how to be good humans, but the act of doing science in the way it's supposed to be done—always saying, "This is the truth as far as I can tell," being humble, sharing information, engaged in dialogue, knowing you can never have a final answer—is itself a model for an ethical existence.

I'd like to know how a scientist of today's generation would read this book. The situation Bronowski describes in the scientific community doesn't seem like what presently exists, though ideally it would. And have later developments in math or science undone any of his metaphors or arguments?

A wonderful book; a marvelous teacher. The text invites rereading.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Coming soon! September 2012 Asimov's Science Fiction!

The dino's not for me, but for Dale Bailey's story. Still, I love a good dino. The first time Asimov's ran a story of mine, the cover featured my name and the story's title ("You Will Go to the Moon") as well as an illustration to fit the story (a painting of an actual moon scenario by Apollo astronaut Alan Bean). Now, for this fifth story, my name and the story title are once again on the cover—and dinosaurs, along with all things astronomical, were fascinations of mine when I was a child (and still, in truth). So I'm pretty pleased to see this charging (non-feathered?!) beast.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Put down, picked up, written

I got 130 pages into Kim Stanley Robinson's latest, 2312, before resignedly setting it down. The story takes place across our solar system, with humans (and altered variants of humans) living on other planets, moons, and asteroids. A death in the family causes our protagonist to be drawn into a tale of interplanetary intrigue . . . which is pretty much all I learned about where the plot was headed. I think the focus was going to turn around the idea of somehow fixing globally warmed Earth. The book reads something like John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (which borrows stylistically from Dos Passos's U.S.A.) in its use of chapters that contain snippets of information that seem to be randomly gathered from various data sources. Other chapters hold straight-out explanations of future scientific achievements, such as terraforming and making livable asteroids. Even the narrative chapters that follow the story shift point of view every time, maintaining a third-person anonymous narrator but varying which character gets the interior attention. The writing was excellent—and I want to especially praise a chapter in which the main character returns to Earth; Robinson captures how that must feel to be an Earthling who has spent a great deal of time away, as there's something unique about being on this world, where humans can breathe and where water runs and the sun isn't too close or far off. Despite the fine writing, the constant interruptions in the narrative flow cost the novel, I think. Are they needed in order to understand the story? I don't know, but the book was going to take too long, it wasn't holding me, and a clumsy character introduction sank it for me.

I also set aside, though with less reluctance, Jess Walter's new novel, Beautiful Ruins. I hadn't read Walter, and the first chapter, taking place in a sad, imaginary town below the line of Italian coastal towns that form the Cinque Terre, was wonderful, introducing an interesting character and demonstrating a witty tone and clever phrasing. Unfortunately, the novel shifts, in its second chapter, from the humble town and protagonist in 1962 to some profoundly unlikable modern folk involved in Hollywood. The tone I'd liked now grated, and the writing felt forced. Why am I reading about these people? I wondered. Well, I would read about them no more.

Perhaps shamefully, I also stopped progress (arguably, the novel itself stopped its progress) on Malcolm Lowry's "classic" (so it is viewed), Under the Volcano. Its story of a besotted and bewildered and cuckolded ex–Mexican consul is minutely told in the style that has its origins in Proust, but the plot, such as it is, proceeds like a tired and meandering burro. One wanted to urge it to "Giddup," but it stuck to its pace—and actually seemed to slowing down the farther it went. I did not want to wait around for it to keel over where it stood. I read about a quarter of the novel, so at least now I know something of it, if not how it ends (though I suspect a sad conclusion for our "hero").

Under the Volcano put me in the mood for denser stuff than Walter's novel, and something more assuredly literary than Robinson's quite literate writing—and so I turned to Conrad's Lord Jim. I'm about a third of the way through and loving it. Conrad is just so much fun, full of marvelous phrasing and wild overstatement and grand moments of physical drama and human suffering. No, the plot doesn't fly along, but there's a sense of movement, and the voice is compelling. Plus, he's already fooled me twice about where the story is going.

I also read the first story in Fred Chappell's new collection, Ancestors and Others. Seeing the list of works by Chappell dismays me: How have I never heard of him? The first story, a five-pager entitled "The Overspill" (I have no idea why the first tale is italicized, both in the title and throughout, unless it's meant to serve as some kind of preface to everything that will follow), tells of a boy and father who build a garden and a bridge during the boy's mother's absence. It's exciting and emotional, and the ending is stunning. It reminds you, after my above disappointments, of what surprises are possible in fiction.

Lastly, as I await publication of and reaction to "Unearthed," forthcoming in the September Asimov's, out in a few weeks, I'm getting a fair amount done on "Absolute Zero," the next Old Man tale. There's a twin-streamed plot, and I'm writing very drafty sections first, mostly (there's one solid scene and much scattered dialogue), in order to make sure the structure is in order. Should be a fun one.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The past as present: Garner's THE OWL SERVICE

Alan Garner's Red Shift was so odd (see here), and the man possessed such a following overseas, I had to see what else he'd done, and so I ordered The Owl Service, a novel more clearly aimed at younger readers (or at least amenable to a younger reader). The book feels familiar, its structure and tropes now thoroughly dispersed into a hundred other fantasy tales in which young people unpack a mystery and find themselves to be the keys to its cause and solution.

I was never quite sure how young these young people were, which connects to my primary complaint about the book, so let's deal with that first. When he can, as evidenced in Red Shift, Garner likes to avoid narrative exposition (though his prose is dense, lovely, and full of unexpected choices). In Red Shift, this led to Garner dropping all transitions that might adequately address the passage of time or characters moving from one place to another, so dialogue chiefly carried one along. The Owl Service is much more accessible in this regard, though Garner does like to have someone react audibly to something before he tells us what it is. Nevertheless, the opening of the book introduces us to three youngish people without making clear their relationship to each other. Eventually, it gets sorted out, but I can't see a good cause for delaying such useful information, information that would provide a context for the conversations we hear.

In short, the novel, which I blew through in one day (not that I skimmed; it was an engaging story), concerns an English family staying at a place in the Welsh countryside, a house and grounds the daughter of the blended family has inherited from her late father. Her mother, often mentioned, is on the premises but does not appear in a single scene—a pleasant enough bit of narrative fun, though I waited in vain for this to figure into the larger plot. Something scratching about in the attic (which no one seems appropriately troubled by) leads the teens—the girl, her step-brother, and the housekeeper's son—to discover a "service," a set of plates decorated in a pattern that the girl traces and turns into owl stencils—which sets in motion a host of supernatural events.

The book strongly reminds me of Red Shift in its connection of landscape with plot. In Red Shift, three sets of characters are linked, across time, by geography; the landscape, one understands, is haunted both forward and backward in time. The Owl Service ties the present events to a tale from the Welsh myth cycle the Mabinogion; a set of mythic events has recurred over the centuries, and it's all happening again as a bound feminine power breaks its shackles. How this manifests itself is, in some moments, frightening and strange, though what exactly has transpired is not terribly clear (and a personal secret that seems to reveal necessary information ends up complicating things, I think).

It's funny that Garner has one of his characters complain about the "elliptical" statements of the mysterious Welsh gardener (the typical fool-who's-truly-wise, though he's portrayed well), since the novel ends up relying for much of its mystery on just such elliptical pronouncements as well as half-explained events. The story comes together quite nicely in its climactic moments, but the absolutely final scene, the true climax, falls flat, as if the narrative were simply switched off; additionally, Garner leaves no aftermath to the tale, so when the storm has passed, as it were, the book abruptly ends.

I have to read such books with an eye and ear toward what a middle-school-aged American reader might take from them. Assuming someone gets past the frustrating elisions of the opening section, the story should pull them along. Better readers, especially those who've read other English novels (The Secret Garden will utterly prepare them, given its reliance on the relationship between social class and dialect, a theme foregrounded here as well), should be able to navigate the non-American elements and language, but plenty of other readers will find themselves at a loss long before the somewhat unsatisfying end.

ADDENDUM: A friend's comment that I missed the clash of cultures and class—which I didn't—leads me to think I need to say more along those lines than that anyone who's read The Secret Garden (or Lady Chatterly's Lover) will recognize the particularly English social-sexual tensions. Once Garner makes it clear that the household contains the working-class housekeeper and her son, both of whom are Welsh, he foregrounds those issues of social division, and I think those elements are the most coherent and successful elements of the novel. The relationship between the family's daughter, Alison, and the housekeeper's son, Gwyn, which is meant to parallel the Mabinogion tale (though I thought that fit awkwardly), generates much of the book's tension. No one wants these two to be together, and it's implied that the concerns are sexual as well as social. Gwyn is trying to rescue Alison from the kind of powers he knows reside in this myth-laden landscape, but he's often prevented from doing her any good. As it turns out, the sexual history of the region is itself complicated and a source of all these unchecked (female) energies. Language, too, is a major concern, loaded as it is with social weight, and it's another check against Gwyn, who aims to speak like a non-Welsh. These elements of the narrative are so strong, the supernatural aspects get underplayed for a fair portion of the novel, but Garner does well when he makes the landscape and people conspire to keep young Gwyn from forsaking his culture and destiny.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Avengers and Shakespeare: The screen as stage

Anyone following Avengers star Tom Hiddleston's remarks on comic-book movies knows the respect he has for these films as a genre as well as his deep immersion in Shakespeare. Hiddleston has played Hal/Henry V in Shakespeare's sequence of Henry plays, which is fitting, because the summoning to an imaginary experience that Shakespeare implicitly—and, in one case, explicitly—engages in can be found again in modern movie-making.

Henry V famously opens with a "chorus"—a single actor who provides occasional narration—asking the audience to overlook the limitations of the Elizabethan stage: there will be no armies, no horses, nor any set to indicate whether one is in England or France. Rather, the audience itself must summon the various imaginary elements necessary to make the tale convincing. It's a clever device, with Shakespeare simultaneously acknowledging the labors of the actors, encouraging the audience to be engaged in the entertainment, and providing, through the narration, a vivid, thrilling description of the images he wants the viewer to have in mind.

How distant this is, seemingly, from the (most) popular entertainments of our day, the increasingly realistic dramas in video games and the CGI-dominated action movies such as The Avengers. Nothing, now, can be left to the imagination. Whereas a few decades ago, films still had to rely on an audience's forgiveness and willingness to accept what was clearly not real, now realism dominates, and so we've reached an age of cinematic literalism, in which fiction on film requires less and less of the viewer.

And yet. What of what's required of the actors? I recently saw, online, stills from various Avengers scenes, and what struck me is how little of what I saw on the film captured what the actors experienced. New York itself was digitally added to the film (as no actual filming took place there), and action scenes that appeared to be outdoors were instead shot on a huge sound stage, green screens backing every shot. I hadn't grasped the extent of what had been added post-production to the filming, and it made me realize that the actors, like the performers of the Elizabethan age, largely had to construct from their imaginations the scenes that audience would, later, directly behold. I think Scarlett Johansson was most effective in this, which is why director Whedon often went to her face for reaction shots: she excelled at looking completely undone by whatever she viewed, be it Banner's first transformation into the Hulk or hordes of aliens roaring from a hole in the sky. Despite the ingenuity of the people constructing a believable digital reality, were it not for the actors behaving as if they truly were these characters within these situations, the audience would not have fallen for the cinematic deceit. All the actors had to go on was what Shakespeare's troupe possessed: elaborate costumes, an entertaining script, and each other's shared imaginative enthusiasm.

The audience may no longer deserve exhortation and credit, as in Shakespeare's time, but we still rely on that "muse of fire" to enflame the actors, who must "ascend the brightest heaven of invention" to provide us with our play.

Sunday, July 1, 2012


In his brief and strange Nobel acceptance speech, William Faulkner said that humans would "endure" not simply because they wouldn't shut up (his image of a "puny inexhaustible voice" going on and on even as daylight sets forever on this world) but because they have "a soul," by which he meant something that suffered and struggled and showed compassion. Those "eternal verities," said Faulkner, gave meaning to what was otherwise a formless babble. Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris have accomplished, in Standard Operating Procedure, a virtuous act that emphasizes those same verities, by taking more than 200 hours of human talk—the interviews that form the basis of this book and the spine of Morris's film of the same name—and locating within them something like a human soul, a flawed and temporary beast that labors to know itself through its speaking.

I came to the book because of a short story I'm working on, part of my "Old Man" sequence, and the book did give me material to use (as well as a better understanding of how the terrorist prison in my fiction will not resemble the prison at Abu Ghraib). The bookflap oversells the text: "In a tradition of moral and political reckoning, and all-powerful storytelling, that runs from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Fyodor Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor to Normal Mailer's Executioner's Song . . . " Setting aside that Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor scene, part of The Brother's Karamazov, is largely about the failure of institutional Christianity, I don't think you can compare what Gourevitch has done, in distilling Morris's interviews, to the work of Conrad and Dostoevsky. But it's instructive that the publisher makes that comparison, because while the Mailer work is based on real events, the other two are fictional narratives, using broad social contexts as canvasses for imaginary tales. Gourevitch isn't building an imaginary narrative, but each person interviewed provides a different interpretive slant on what was popularly understood to be a set of incontrovertible facts. Not Gourevitch, but each soldier who entered Abu Ghraib is Marlow, the distorting witness, and our unnamed narrator, who sets the darkening scene for Marlow's account, and Conrad, a witness to a chaotic reality that he's attempting to shape into something meaningful.

Gourevitch and Morris provide the context in which these events occur, a horror for prisoner and soldier alike. Everyone is displaced from what they know, reliant on strangers, and living in unfit conditions. Even those who have power know that, in the words of Jesus, that power is given to them from above—yet what exactly that power consists of, they are uncertain, even as they wield it. It's a universe of competing moral systems, the fragile ones the soldiers have brought with them from their former lives, the supposedly rigid one the military gave them but that seems to have been voided, and the new one built of desperation and circumstance and the constant presence of death. Then the writers take us into the events themselves, the events within—and outside the frame of—the infamous photographs; they use the interviews to unpack multiple significant events, giving us, Rashomon-like, different angles from which to understand the meaning of what we've seen. No one has uncomplicated motives; no one is simply doing the wrong thing or the right thing. The soldiers know they've crossed lines, but no one corrects them, and often they're urged by military intelligence to continue or even amplify their questionable actions.

As has been often commented on, the people in the photographs, the people we can see in contact with the prisoners, were prosecuted, but higher-ups largely avoided consequence, and, most horribly, for me, the architects of the Iraq invasion—Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, many others—have gone not only unpunished for the unnecessary and ill-prosecuted war that created these scenarios, they remain, near as I can tell, unrepentant.

The book is an outstanding account of an individual, collective, and national descent into hell. Read it and be enlightened about what it really means to "endure."