Monday, July 22, 2013

Everything's black and white: Cormac McCarthy's THE SUNSET LIMITED

Cormac McCarthy's "novel in dramatic form" (so says the cover), The Sunset Limited, leans toward allegory in its pas de deux of a black ex-con and white professor hashing out "to be or not to be," but it remains too grounded in its particulars, and too invested in its arguments, to go wholly in that direction. Instead it's an argument fraught—or overwrought—with significance, in which one man's life comes to represent, in its particularities, the human predicament as a whole.

Rather than give these characters names, McCarthy labels the men "Black" and "White." It's a decision that implies something about each character's cultural narrative, though that's a problematic road, requiring, as it does, broad assumptions about these cultural types that, while aiming to load them with significance, strips them of individuality. The black man is poor, uneducated, a former convict, a man who has known and done violence, a reformed soul, and a reader of but one book, the Bible. The white man is a college professor of whose background we know even less—he's not only white, he's pallid, character-wise—save that he has reached a nihilistic conclusion about life and made what seems to him to be the obvious choice, to jump in front of a train (the titular "Sunset Limited"). The black man, having appeared from nowhere on the trail platform, somehow "catches" and rescues the white man and transports him back to his below-humble abode, a lair that, we are told, is frequented by society's rejects. McCarthy's labeling of the characters "Black" and "White," however, doesn't quite satisfy his need to stereotype them, so in the stage directions, the white man is "the professor" and the black man is "the black." Why McCarthy didn't see this as problematic phrasing baffles me, and suggests that, shrewd as the dialogue is, his ear was tin for at least this decision. Additionally, the labeling suggests, in its sheer American-ness, that the piece will have something more to say about race, but that's not a direction the work goes.

The black man's dialogue is the gem in this work. Easy to hear, richly phrased, full of life and intent, the language shifts in tone as the man works every rhetorical trick to convince the white man to live. Much of this circles around an argument for God . . . maybe. Though White is convinced that Black is trying to convert him to religion in order to save him, Black doesn't argue that belief in God is a necessity in order to see value in life. The finest argument in "the trick bag" is likely (and I assume McCarthy agrees with this) the one he doesn't explicitly make: in a discussion of cooking, Black gets White to see that, though the poor have castoff ingredients with which to work, the meal becomes a thing of both sustenance and joy because the poor "improvise." What White lacks is the necessary empathy to see that other people keep living not because they've figured things out nor because they refuse to see their own suffering but because, moment to moment, they make do with what that universe makes available.

The ending wasn't completely satisfying, mostly because it let me down rhetorically rather than in its expression of ideas. The characters just seem to run out of room to negotiate and run out of energy for each other.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Dead or Undead: Colson Whitehead's ZONE ONE

Had I known going into Colson Whitehead's "zombie novel," Zone One, that the story took place over only three days, I'd have seen the first third of the book as less resistant to the novel form and more as the kind of tight narrative, dense with delineated or implied backstory, that makes something like The Great Gatsby or On Chesil Beach so effective. As the plot crept forward in the early going, I knew why some online reviewers had complained about the book, though I thought, regardless, it was excellent and riveting. How could those reviewers not, once they'd reached the latter part of the novel, seen the purpose in the structure? I suppose they were expecting something with more "beats," a crisis-to-crisis heartbeat-accelerator in standard "genre" mode.

For my money, this novel got under my skin more than a typical horror narrative, and it's largely due to how little time Whitehead spends on "zombie attacks." What takes their place? 1) Anxiety about what might be behind any door. Whitehead hits us with that right away. 2) A deep history. Our protagonist, nicknamed (and never named) Mark Spitz, though now part of a civilian sweeper team prowling Manhattan, has seen, engaged in, and fled from any number of zombie attacks, and the farther into the book we proceed, the more time we spend in scenarios in which he's awaiting those engagements, so that the past becomes more horror-filled than his present—while also portending something terrible for the narrative's arc. 3) How the past overlays the present. Every moment sends Mark Spitz into his past. How can it not? The undead people look like people he's known. The city is a place where he's spent time. Some zombies don't attack, but remain stuck in some repetitive behavior, as if they were sealed in nostalgia for a particular moment, and those moments look like moments Mark Spitz has known. This is a haunted world, but it's haunted by the living and inhabited by the dead.

The last conceit is part of a larger schema in which things are flipped on their heads. The world we knew is dead, the undead now move through that world, but did we progress through it any more meaningfully? While this may seem an obvious and merely cynical modern commentary on the circular and purposeless nature of much human behavior, Whitehead's expressive writing and trenchant observations make it a point he never exhausts, though he moves from subtle to explicit comparisons later in the book in a way that doesn't help his point. The writing itself is cleverly saturated with words that take on double meanings or horror-inflected implications. Thus, for example, when someone "shuffles" off to work, the "shuffle" of a zombie is nodded toward.

Mark Spitz himself is a sign of this upside-down world. We hear only rather late in the novel that he's black, and the character observes that notions of race have, if not collapsed, at least become less relevant, even though one of his colleagues, he thinks, surely knows the signifiers for every stereotype. Ironically nicknamed for the white champion swimmer, Mark Spitz is a man who "dog-paddles" through life. He is successful in this new world because he doesn't stand out—and because he wasted so much time watching horror movies, playing first-person-shooter video games, and imagining himself in post-apocalyptic adventures. Now he's in one, more fully alive than in life, living out a Friday-to-Sunday reversal of the Resurrection narrative.

Highly literate, rich in detail, and existentially haunting, Whitehead's novel might be seen as another look at the milieu of Camus' The Plague. There, too, people move through life without real purpose, and the plague gives them purpose because they become aware of death's imminence. But whereas Camus' people are locked inside the walls of Oran with the plague, Whitehead's people imagine themselves to have sealed off the plague behind stone walls. In either case, the disease proves inescapable.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Their master's voice: GOING CLEAR, by Lawrence Wright

The early days of any religious or cultural moment hold great fascination for me, and likely for many readers, as we consider: What was the original idea? What were the founder's motives? How did people initially respond? What conflicts exist between history and legend? Where did the originating action or idea shift to become something else?

As much as one can, Lawrence Wright answers these questions in Going Clear, his jumpy and extensive exposé of Scientology and its founder, prolific science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. For those who've read previous works on Hubbard and his "religion," including Wright's piece on director Paul Haggis, disaffected former Scientologist, there's little new here in terms of the story's arc and outline, and many of the elements have been more fully covered elsewhere. But Wright does a fine job fleshing out a host of people associated with the movement, and he provides far more detail on the treatment of those who signed on for the long haul in the days of Hubbard who came to wonder where the glory went.

In addition, Wright isn't writing an "attack piece"; rather, he attempts to understand Hubbard, his ideas, and the organization. The answers are disquieting, but he gives Hubbard's ideas—both his socio-psychological ones and the ones Hubbard himself referred to as "space opera"—a fair hearing, comparing Hubbard's codifying of internal human processes to the way Freud came up with id, ego, and superego. Wright presents Hubbard's system, but then also details how that system is reshaped as one progresses in Scientology, the early ideas being subsumed into a tale of galactic battle and clinging, invisible aliens who cause all our anxieties. Aside from pointing out that no one thinks the universe is as old as Hubbard's narrative relates (quadrillions of years), Wright lets the story stand in all its absurdity, allowing the reader to conclude, "Well, that's just nuts."

The reason I threw the word religion into quotation marks above is because it's unclear that that's what Hubbard created, but the word is a fluid one, and Wright takes pains to point out that any explanation for life that provides an all-encompassing belief system is arguably a religion. (I've argued that French secularism is actually a religion, just as Khmer Rouge communism was; the presence of a deity isn't the issue.) Hubbard seems, at the outset of his explorations, to have invented an alternate schema for grasping and dealing with human psychological problems and interpersonal dynamics; later, however, he brings in the science fiction trappings. Is that religion? Hubbard himself may have opted to call his "research" a religion entirely in order to evade snooping by authorities, as Scientology ran into problems even early on by exceeding both its reach and grasp. (Some of the early misadventures are harrowing and hilarious; Hubbard often constructs plans that resemble pulp-fiction plots, but he uses real people to act out these scenarios.)

Wright also discusses Hubbard's possible dementedness, but he never simply says, "The man was crazy." Nor does he merely assert that people caught up in the movement are fools (or that the leaders are purely mercenary in their aims, though the church's current head, David Miscavige, does seem the one character lacking all virtue in this tale). In the end, we're left with the mystery of human personality and behavior.

Wright turns out to be a terrific author for this project, as he'd also examined, without some preconceived notion of the "evil" of those involved, the roots of al Qaeda in his masterful The Looming Tower. He does not come to bury Hubbard, but to investigate and engage him. In this, he reminds me of Fawn Brodie, author of No Man Knows My History, the fascinating biography of Mormonism's founder, Joseph Smith, and Garry Wills, whose book Reagan's American: Innocents at Home marvelously captures the elusive Ronald Reagan. All three authors have plenty of reason to think ill of their subjects, but both also make sure the reader is aware of their subjects' virtues, the ways in which they succeeded in inspiring people and triggering movements in their names. Like Brodie, Wright identifies his subject as a con man and a liar, but that doesn't prevent Wright from recognizing how much of himself Hubbard invested in his outsize project, whatever his motivations and whatever the consequences.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Nook and Kindle story sales

[UPDATE: As of mid-July, I removed my stories from Barnes & Noble's site. Though I liked the upgrade to the interface that came when B&N's Pubit migrated to NOOK Press, my resentment about the way payments were handled (see below) led me to, at least for now, remove my stories.]

Hm. In the past week, I've sold six e-book copies of the bundled "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" and "Clockworks." I've sold two copies of e-book "Unearthed."

When I put these stories online, stories that had already appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction, I didn't know whether people would seek them out—especially since I'd provided "Helping Them Take . . ." as a free PDF on this site for a year before trying to sell copies. I'm glad people have found and enjoyed the stories, which have gone through (usually explicable) sales patterns, with, for example,  sales of the first two bundled stories taking a jump when "Unearthed" was published in Asimov's.

So what has given rise to this recent spate of purchases? And, a separate puzzle, why have I sold three copies of the bundled stories via Barnes and Noble (through which I have not made "Unearthed" available)? I had recently considered removing those stories from B&N: only 10 percent (at most) of my sales have come through B&N, and authors are paid only once they hit each 10-dollar bar—at which point it takes many months before one is actually paid. It's an awful arrangement. Amazon (via Kindle and the Kindle app) have in place a much more author-friendly, sane system.

Recent purchases at B&N did bump me up to that next 10-dollar sales point, so at some point, I'll actually see that money. (It's not about the money, it's about how people paid for something and then the money just sits with B&N; I'm grateful that people feel they ought to pay for the reading experience—especially since every reading experience is a risk, more likely ending in disappointment than satisfaction—so for them to not actually have their kind gesture reach completion seems unjust to me.)

The Pulpster, the journal released each year at Pulpfest (coming up at the end of July), contains a piece I wrote about my Old Man stories. I expect that will generate a few more sales, so I'll leave up the stories, for now. I'm working to complete the fourth story in the series, so I probably ought to leave the tales up at the online sites for new readers who want to understand the full background when (if) that story is published. But I intend to get the fifth and final story finished more quickly, and I don't intend, at this point, to put the fourth one online, in the hope that all five stories will (once the first three are withdrawn from e-book publication) instead be published in book form by some visionary publisher. (Heh.)

If you've read and enjoyed these stories, please let me know. And if you're looking for a copy of "Unearthed" for your Nook, just get the free Kindle app and download the story to your computer.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Enduring a proliferation of Snopeses: Faulkner's THE TOWN

For about the first hundred pages, I thought this second "novel of the Snopes family," William Faulkner's The Town, bore the same relation to the preceding novel, The Hamlet, that Tom Sawyer, Boy Detective bore to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: a thin revisiting of a place and its people. But the novel grows significant, and even tragic, as it advances, even as it never loses (for long) its comedic tone and structure.

The novel consists of a series of episodes (two published as short stories) all depending directly on or circling around Flem Snopes, the rapacious, amoral striver from The Hamlet. In that novel, which is more fragmented because it incorporates separately published stories that, together, possess a less-coherent focus, we see Snopes at a distance, from the perspective of sewing-machine salesman V.K. Ratliff, who recognizes that an Enemy has come to town. Though that novel, too, features some comedic scenes, the voluptuous writing and Ratliff's sense of impending catastrophe make the book feel like a Greek tragedy. We hear less from Ratliff in The Town, and what we hear doesn't sound like the raconteur of the (much) earlier novel.

Whereas the narrative of The Hamlet unfolds through novellette-length tales, each tragic, the stories here are briefer, and almost all are comic. The three voices, Ratliff, county attorney Gavin Stevens (referred to by Ratliff as Lawyer Stevens), and Stevens's nephew Charles ("Chick") Mallison, who was too young for many of the early chapters and thus must relate some stories second hand—take turns, telling overlapping tales, picking up where each other left off, providing different perspectives on the same events. Stevens's voice becomes the most evocative, culminating in a kind of hymn linking the small events of his town to the entire natural world.

Ratliff's task in this novel is to keep an eye on Flem Snopes—and on the proliferation of Snopeses in Jefferson. However, Snopes seems less an evil force in this book. People interact with him, albeit warily; we hear more from him; he takes a more public role in the town; we gain insight into why he behaves as he does; and Faulkner finally allows us to sympathize with him. Snopes is, I suppose, a sociopath, unable to form the kinds of bonds other people take for granted, unfamiliar with the kinds of motives that drive others. He merely acquires, even when he doesn't yet know the true value of an acquisition. Ultimately, he wants to be respectable, to have lifted himself from his dirt-poor beginnings.

After the novel slows and deepens, its final chapter is another lark, a goofy tale of four dangerous Snopes children who terrorize families and resist civilizing. It seems an odd note on which to end, what with all the preceding ruminations on mortality and loss—which should make one ask what Faulkner sees in this anecdote, and how it connect to the other stories that form the novel.

One element that runs through everything is this sense that Flem Snopes embodies some kind of acquisitive force, so much so that the name Snopes itself, no matter to whom its attached, conjures up Flem's propensity to dominate. Yet Faulkner also repeatedly undercuts this notion, pointing out how no other Snopes is quite like Flem, and that instead their failures lead Flem—the person who brought them all to Jefferson—to find ways to repudiate them and remove them from his social sphere.

This connects to the larger idea of family, and how one's name and background carry certain ramifications from which one struggles to escape. Snopes attempts to alter people's perception of him (while also following his acquisitive aims) by marrying, in the previous novel, the already pregnant Eula Varner. But Eula's infidelity throughout The Town complicates this attempt, and Faulkner follows those complications to a dramatic conclusion. Likewise, one never forgets the family histories that provide every character a context, and characters see themselves mirrored, sustained, or trapped by their families. Gavin Stevens has a twin sister, and her understanding of him means he can't escape other people's sense of why he does what he does.

Eula's infidelity and Gavin Stevens's attraction to her (and, later, to her daughter) link to another overarching theme, the sexual desires of people in the town. Though Faulkner novels are always rich with "perversion," and The Town has some of that, refreshingly, Faulkner places front and center a married couple—Maggie, Lawyer Stevens's sister, and her husband Charles, whose son is one of the narrators—who bring ribald humor and a healthy sex drive to the fore in many of their scenes. No other character is so fortunate. Whether impotent, frustrated, cuckolded, or satiated, every other character has a sex life that isn't following the expected path—certainly not the path proscribed by the firm Protestants of Faulkner's South.

And thus we get "the town." Faulkner could easily have presented the problematic sex lives and judgments of watchful eyes as the typical unpleasantness one associates with small towns and left it at that. But Faulkner tells us repeatedly, through little Chick Mallison, that people in Jefferson are nice, that the town is a good place to live. Yes, people judge one another, but they're pragmatic, too, withholding judgment or at least withholding a verbal response because to treat every sin as if it requires quashing would upset the progress of things. People want banks that protect their money, even if they have their doubts about the people in charge; they want progress, though cars have often been a sign of trouble; they want to continue this experiment that brings men and women together in painful, frustrating ways—because isn't that how the world proceeds?