Thursday, November 29, 2012

Boehner Bargaining

I'm getting really amused by the Republicans flailing around in the tax rate negotiations. I do not for a second think that, given the situations were reversed, Democrats would knuckle under as they prepared for a Romney administrations. So I'm not blaming the Republicans for being stubborn and poor losers, I just honestly don't think it's a good strategy.

Let's look at the facts directly.

Democrats are in the driver's seat. Obama won the election. Democrats control the Senate. Boehner lost seats in his caucus and probably only retains his speakership by virtue of the massive gerrymandering Republicans did on congressional districts around the country. After all, by two percentage points, Americans voted for a Democratic House. So in any way that is significant, the election produced a definitive and clear result. Also, let's not forget what will happen on January 1st if the President and the Speaker fail to come to an agreement. Taxes will go up on everyone. That would not be a good result but guess who's going to get the blame?

Republicans had a chance to side-step this obvious trap in the first two weeks after the election. Boehner could have agreed to preserving the Bush tax cuts on 98% of the country and worked out something he could have sold to his caucus. Then he could have moved on to issues of more importance and a more obvious routes towards success. He did not do that. So now his leg is caught in the bear trap and he's trying to put blame on the White House for not being as mature as he is. How mature is it to get into a bluffing match with someone who wins by doing nothing?

I dunno, I'm just a writer, but if I identify a situation where I can't possibly win and by fighting I significantly weaken my position down the road, I take my lumps and move on. It's getting to the point where I don't feel anger for Republicans; I feel pity. I pity the whole drunk clown car of incompetents conservative voters keep voting into office. They blew a totally winnable election and now they are rifling through the tool shed for more shovels for the same damn hole.




Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Preliminary Activities

It's a tricky balance preparing to write for a short story.

I've veered between two extremes. On one hand I enjoy creating page after page of back story for characters even if I know they'll never actually make it into a story. I've created family trees to the third generation, elaborate maps of fictional neighborhoods and timelines spanning centuries.

On the other, I've always had the ideal that short stories just sort of happen. That a good story is a singular moment of creation stemming from some profound and mysterious process deep within the human mind. A story isn't written, it's summoned. Planning, preparation, brainstorming were all harmful to the ritual of the thing. The more I set down ahead of time the more possibilities I was closing off permanently before I even gave the story a chance to work itself into existence.

Then I decided I wanted my stories to be read by a general audience and I realized that neither the 'labor of love' or the 'throw it together on a run' model quite works.

Stories are not so much singular moments as they are the product of a process. They are an endeavor and require certain preparations. But, also, it's tough to have an adventure in a story shrink-wrapped and precisely labeled. My current ideal is to set up characters that reveal themselves through the story. I have to know who they are, but I also have to predict who they might become. The trick of writing a short story is introducing complicated people to complete strangers, I need to show who these characters are in such a way that readers feel like they know how they are going to act. There are people I work with every day I'm not sure I could do that with.

I have to set up their world. That's true for speculative fiction, but it's true for even more conventional 'realistic' fiction. Every character occupies a certain fiction space, a narrative time. For a short story it's not possible to set down every single detail about that world or desirable. I think I can set up some good scenery though. I can create a few impressions that the reader fills in with memories and associations. I might not know exactly what is inside every house that a character walks next to on the way back home, but I want the reader to be able to guess.

I think what I'm describing then is less a list of details and facts than a process that could generate consistent details and facts. It's almost like one of those randomizer webpages that will spit out fake names, places and spy movie plots. I know I've done my homework if I'm able to take two characters, put them in a room together and improvise a scene consistent with the rest of the story.

For characters I begin by setting them up like a character in an RPG. I give them a backstory, focusing in on a moment (off-screen) that really served to bring them to the beginning of the story. I use the characters to sketch out the world. I think about how the character might actually function in the story. What are they likely to say. What sets them off. I think of these things almost like tags or key words. There is more to the character than what I write down but for a moment in time described in 2,000 to 7,000 words, this suffices.

I sketch out the plot as well, again, not in much detail but enough to for me to see where all the pieces are going. I work backwards, which is a trick I learned from a writing class and from designing lessons as a teacher; I know where I want to be at the end and then just trace how to get there through the proceeding pages.

Then I clear the deck and let myself write. I can't claim any success with any of this, but maybe the process that's I've described strikes a chord with you.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Cringe

First season Parks and Rec was amazingly bad. I'm going to start by stating it is unbelievable how quickly this show rose from the inky depths of mediocrity to being one of the best sitcoms on TV. Because the first few shows? Really bad.

Part of the reason I'm reacting so negatively to early P&R is its reliance on one of my least favorite comedy styles: cringe humor. The cringe is created by awkward social moments that go on and on and on. I'm not sure the reaction to the situation could even properly be considered comedy. Laughing simply seems the only way to expel the toxic levels of humiliation.

To be fair, not all cringe is created equal and I do like certain movies that include it. Rushmore, for example, one of my all-time favorite films, has this scene about half-way through.

The awkwardness - it burns!

But the difference is this scene is meant to advance the story, the character and the themes of the story. This is a pivotal moment when Max begins to lose the fiction he has worked so hard to maintain in his life. It's painful to watch but it's going somewhere.

Compare to this scene from P&R in the episode where Lesley Knope is trying to canvas for  a public forum on a park she's trying to build.


The situation is embarrassing and we probably feel some smidgeon of empathy for the character but it's ruined by two problems. One, it isn't funny but two the scene isn't really serving any purpose other than inducing body-wracking levels of vicarious humiliation. Has Lesley been radically changed by this terrible encounter? Not really. So we the audience are left to assume that this situation is not meaningful, that we have been made to suffer for a character for no good reason. And, the suffering, ultimately was the point. Cringe humor, when done badly is a kind of passion play, where we watch a scapegoat (socially) flayed so we can feel bad about ourselves. There are lower levels of amusement but not many.

To sum up, cringe humor is useful when it serves to highlight important character development or advances the story. It sucks when it serves to make the intended audience feel like they are experiencing the public speaking nightmare.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Lincoln

In a movie with as many moving parts and grand, powerful sweeps of emotion, it is difficult to sum up one's overall impressions. The only thing tougher would be creating a movie that summed up Abraham Lincoln. 



I do not for an instant think that is what Steven Speilberg's "Lincoln" has done. It does not, for all time, set down what Lincoln meant as a human being, president, or cultural touchstone. It simply tells a story. In general, that's enough for me.

Lincoln is the kind of movie that should seen a lot longer than it actually does. It's about IMPORTANT WEIGHTY HISTORICAL moments. The cast list is filled with names like Ulysseus S. Grant, and Thaddeus Stevens you probably dimly remember from high school history class. It has costumes. My wife entered the theater with a quick warning, "don't get angry at me if I fall asleep." Nary a nudge was needed. The film whips by in two and a half hours and manages somehow to encompass just about every conceivable human emotion, love, fear, wrath, desperation, madness and hope without ever losing its focus on Lincoln and his struggles immediately after reelection in 1865 to enact the thirteenth amendment granting citizenship to all people born in the United States, in effect ending slavery.

Lincoln is Spielberg's best movies since Munich and another successful collaboration with the gifted playwright Tony Kushner. The cascade of redundant endings complicates labeling it the 'best' movie of 2012. It's very, very good. It is certainly one of Spielberg's most successful attempts to fuse his themes of war, justice, politics, and the repercussions of slavery. 

Spielberg is able, when he allows himself, to construct very disturbing set-pieces. I'm not the only movie fan to notice this, but it's the one bracing quality that prevents him from trailing off into mawkish obscurity. The casual execution of Jewish concentration workers in Schinlder's List. The inhuman slaughter at the beaches of Normandy. The vaporization of an entire New Jersey city by fog horn wielding tripods. Spielberg had never escaped the clutches of a particular story he's been telling since the beginning: the chase. The glassy eyed 'it,' (shark, demon truck, spider robots) versus the fragile, flawed family man. In Lincoln, the 'it' is slavery. And it's not something that is ever really seen, as such in the movie. Tad, Lincoln's youngest son, is mesmerized by a collection of slave photographs. Mary Lincoln's servant casually remarks she was "beaten by a shovel when he was younger than (Tad Lincoln). The President himself compares slavery to a whale (Melville's perhaps) that he's harpooned but hasn't yet dispatched.

Set against the dismal implacable foe of ancient human fears and hatreds is hope. Lincoln knows that he has used trickery and conveniences to end slavery through the Emancipation Proclamation. He words carry war-time weight, and with the war nearing its inevitable end, he knows that a stronger measure is required or the Union would slip once more into slavery. Hence the amendment. He marshals his forces much, in a later scene, as he confers with his Secretaries of War. A trio of ethically untroubled bribery experts sets upon the twenty or so Democratic representatives the president needs for the amendment to pass. Some of the best scenes of the movie revolve around these three approaching, coaxing, and fleeing prospective marks. If this sounds close to a description of the at time tawdry and discouraging debates of the past four years, I leave you to decide.

But where the movie really soars is with Lincoln. Daniel Day Lewis is one of my favorite all-time actors and the quavering, mid-west tenor of his voice he summons for the folksy philosopher that was our 16th president is mesmerizing. The only thing I've seen comparable to it is the joy I got watching the West Wing and seeing Martin Sheen's Bartlett leave a room after leveling some hapless demagogue. 

So, see this movie. If you have kids, take them to the movie. There are scenes of gory battle and a few colorful oaths. If you have a significant other who hates historicals, take them too. Go see this movie if you hate politics, hate war and hate talk about either. This is a movie about this country; what we are about - both what we aspire to be and what we are.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Fregoli Delusion

Current story may involve a character suffering from Fregoli Delusion. If you haven't heard of this condition it's part of a whole class of delusional misidentification syndromes where the brain basically fails to associate a person, place or object correctly. If you look at some one you've known you're entire life and you think they are an imitation you may have a Capgras Delusion. You believe that you are already dead you may be experiencing Cotard's Delusion.

In the case of Fregoli, the believer will maintain that people he or she meets are all in fact the same person in a variety of disguises. The delusion is named after a turn-of-the-century quick change artist, Leopoldo Fregoli, who would astound audiences throughout Europe with rapid, seamless alterations of identity during the course of this stage shows. Fegoli Delusion, like the DMS's, are often caused by traumatic brain injuries, particularly those causing damage to the prefrontal lobe.

Fregoli Delusion is interesting to me because of the many narrative possibilities that disorder represents. First off, I want to say sincerely, that if you or if someone you care about suffers from this condition please don't take my ramblings on this topic to be anything more than the musings of a partially informed amateur genuinely curious about misfirings of the brain. I mean no disrespect.

The Philip K. Dick identity paranoia aspect of this, though, are truly amazing. Imagine, for a second, the life of someone with this delusion. People, maybe everyone, maybe just one subset of the population are actually all the same. Actors playing a variety of roles. It would be like living in Cloud Atlas (the movie) all the time; people you know are Tom Hanks keep putting on ridiculous gobs of make-up and pretending to be someone else. It would be living with a conspiracy so incompetent, its very cack-handed existence was a insult to your intelligence.

"Seriously, people, at least try to cover things up!"

Somewhat more sinister would be a person where the entire world was somehow occupied by a shape-shifting other, like the alien from John Carpenter's The Thing. Everyone you knew had already been assimilated, it just hadn't bothered with you yet. Or possibly, like the 70s version of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" you might convince yourself that by acting 'the part' you might evade detection. Your life would become a very unpleasant movie.

From the literature I've been able to track down, the delusion can be more localized, however. The believer might identify only a handful of people who share the Fregoli identity. These quick-changers persecute the believer, stalking them. Sort of the faceless Men in Black at the core of every conspiracy story.


Friday, November 23, 2012

Sudden Illness

I am giving thanks this year for being healthy again.

Wednesday, I finished work, came home to walk Finn and suddenly thought it would be a good idea to lie down on my couch and not get up for awhile. I hit a wall. Long story short: I went to the emergency room, got a cipro prescription and made it back home just in time for a shaking fever to confine me to bed for the next 12 hours. The thing about being suddenly and seriously ill is that your brain doesn't have time to catch up to the newly constrained situation. I'm bopping along, brain filled with the intertwined significances of relationships, work, writing, hobbies and politics when the gears of thought and cognition slow, grinding to a stop, until I'm left operating on pure reptile processes.
Ultimately, all that's left is a thin anguished whine.

sick. sick. sick. sick. sick. sick.

The combination of antibiotic and Tylenol slowly push back the tide of misery. I begin to reemerge. As a science fiction writer, I appreciated the cyber-punk aspect of a brain reassembling itself from a few fractured pieces. Not to be too melodramatic but I was down pretty low. What appeared first were the practical concerns of getting ready for yesterday's trip to Long Island for Thanksgiving. All of the little voices cataloguing the things I would need to fold up, pack together and move to the car. Then the quick realization all of this should be the last of my worries. Then thoughts of my wife and family. Then above it all the questions. How could I be this sick so quickly? How will Obama's second term be different from his first? How could I be this miserable? What is a metaphor? How will I ever make up these 12 hours I just lost? Would my current project work better in first person or third? Because there wasn't really an organizing principle as such, all of these thoughts cascaded together, interrupting and disrupting each other. This isn't multiple personalities, it's the separate voices of a chorus if the conductor walks out mid-song. Discordant cacophony.

So I go to sleep. When I wake up the conductor has returned and the chorus has retreated into a very low (harmonious) hum. My brain had to retreat even further from cognition to reestablish equilibrium. I go to sleep again and I wake up basically reintegrated although obviously drained from the ordeal.

Why am I sharing this with you? I think this blog has prefigured what I just described to you. I think that my periodic reviews and political musings have in someway helped me with my central challenge in becoming a writer. Developing a voice. I have written most of my life, in one form or another but I always felt disconnected to what I was producing. A sound and fury. In a similar way, this blog has been a jumble of impressions, reactions and partially congealed ideas. Over time I've felt the pull towards doing more than just evaluating what I see. I hope to assemble this together into one perspective. My perspective.

So I will continue to investigate my reactions to movies and books.  I am incapable of avoiding politics so expect more in that vein. The time has come, however, for this blog to return its original purpose, a document and record of my trek towards becoming a writer.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

American Horror Story: I am Ann Frank Part 1 and 2

American Horror Story finally had a good episode. I was starting to get worried.

The first part of the Ann Frank two-parter was frankly worse than a disappointment. Everything that bugged me about the first few episodes: the mish-mash of characters and plot, the schlocky dialogue and the mediocre camera work was amplified in the first half of the story. Worse, having Ann Frank show up felt gratuitous at best and down-right exploitive at worst. You know what a show that already has serial killers, mutants, aliens, lunatics, ghosts and demons really needed? Yeah, sadistic Nazis. And also, the conversion therapy scene? Eew. 

But the second episode turned it around. I'll credit a lot of this to a new (to this season of AHS, anyway) director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and also the episode's cleverly anti-climatic reveal of the identity of the Bloody Face killer. If you hadn't figured out who the serial killer was by the final 15 minutes of the episode, the writers found a way to turn a lamp on for you. I thought this scene was effective and made narrative sense. The allusions to past atrocities were ghoulish touch-stones grounding the scene in an imagined time and place. In previous episodes, this nostalgia felt counterfeit and bloodless but here it was all the tightening of a noose. 

Falchuk wrote this episode and while I never really liked Glee all that much, the story benefitted from an experienced hand. Of course, Lana would jump at the chance to leave Briarcliff and of course the Bloody Faces killer's explanations would sound reasonable, right up until they didn't anymore. And by then, of course, it was too late. 

But the other elements of the story also came together. The juxtaposition of Sister Jude's fall from grace and Charlotte's lobotomy were compelling and ironic without being obvious. Thredson's failure to help Charlotte appears tragic until it doesn't seem that way at all. Falchuk found a way to let this show's complex stories be without fussing with them too much. 

The show seems to be focusing its energies on Dr. Arden. Is he a Nazi or not? Would it be worse if he was an ex-SS officer or is it more disturbing if he's an example of the banality of evil? Now that we know he isn't the Baby Face killer he reasons for being the story seem to be dwindling. He appears to have set the processes of Briarcliff in motion but he doesn't seem to have enough complexity as a character to suggest he'll be around long to watch how they play out. 

The next episode is entitled the Origins of Monstrosity. I'm guessing were going to see a lot more of Zachary Quinto.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Optimism of Peter Watts

Horror infuses the familiar with dread. Read Peter Straub, Stephen King or Algernon Blackwood, and become alarmed by the commonplace. Cars become monsters, the family dog is a killing machine and an island filled with willow trees becomes an avatar of cosmic horror.

Science Fiction, on the other hand, is about making the unfamiliar real. The best of the genre take concepts like first contact with aliens, the fusion of man and machine and time travel and make them plausible, inevitable even. Speculative fiction authors in general aspire, I would argue, to a mantle of pronogniticator, a seer of the possibilities.

So, hopefully you can see that these genre are often in opposition. They haven't always been, of course. HP Lovecraft famously mined the intersections of horror and science fiction for his Mythos stories. Tales of astronauts fighting tentacled alien creatures became so stereotypical that by the Silver Era that entire class of story was known simply as BEM (Bug-Eyed Monsters).

I've become interested recently in Peter Watts, a writer notable for the Rifter series as well as "Blindsight." Watts seems to walk the divide between science fiction and horror better than anyone active right now. Blindsight is a book depicting a society approaching or already in a singularity-type event. Computers exhibit functional sentience, a linguist in the story surgically divides her head into seven distinct personalities, ships are able to beam anti-matter through a quantum entanglement device. Everything is meticulously footnoted and explained so that the full scope of Watts' pessimism becomes clear. Watts paints a world where the dreams of Charles Stross, Vernor Vinge, Ray Kurzweil become real and he then carefully dismantles any hope that would be a good thing.

In our technophilic present, what could be more authentically horror than picking apart the faith we have in our own machines? Watts does go further than that though.

Blindsight is essentially a first-contact story but one between two different sets of aliens. The obvious aliens are the Scramblers, beings capable of traveling across space in orbit around cold stars programmed for their needs. Watts paints a chilling picture of immense intelligence expressed without any actual sentience. Then there are the humans. On the ship Theseus sent by the feckless authorities of earth, are the aforementioned multiple personality linguist, a cyborg so dependent on protheses he can't even feel his own finger tips without intervention, and a pacifist warrior. Then there's the vampire.

As I have said before, such diligent pessimism is enormously appealing to me. While in my own life things have had a tendency to work out for the best, I think I am pretty lucky. There is no statistical bias towards happy endings. In fact, quite the opposite.

But the gothic despondency of Kafka never really sat well with me either. Taking as an assumption that nothing will ever work or that entropy can never be side-stepped is to deny the existence of life itself. Life is incredibly improbable and yet it has persisted on Earth for billions of years, steadily gaining complexity and sophistication.

Watts' fiction occupies a very lucid, very narrow space between optimism and pessimism. A widely repeated quote about him comes from reviewer James Nicoll: "Whenever my will to live grows too strong, I read Peter Watts." It's a funny epigram and I see his point, but upon reflection, I'm not sure I agree with it. Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," is depressing. That's a novel-length vivisection of the concept of hope. Watts' novels aspire for dystopia but get tangled up in the small, improbable victories of his characters. The narrator of "Blindsight" is a man who had half of his brain removed to stop life-threatening seizures. The process left him incapable of empathy but empowered to interpret others through the 'topology' of their gestures and behaviors. As something of a spoiler, even this character, by the end of the story, experiences catharsis and growth.

Don't get me wrong, "Blindsight" is not upbeat but it is resolutely human-centric. Even while describing a vast and indifferent universe, he can't help but lean close to a single human voice and listen to what it says.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Confession

I like Sigur Ros.

I'm not sure how this happened.

It wasn't supposed to happen. It happened like this: I like to check out CDs from libraries during the summer. I found three CDs I wanted and I wanted to take out four. Araetis Byrjun was there so I grabbed it. I don't think I've created a single mix that doesn't include at least on Sigur Ros song since.

Sigur Ros is one of those bands I have been consciously avoiding. Something about the pretension.

Sigur Ros isn't a pretentious band, it is pretension itself. I will start, start, with the fact they recorded an entire album in Icelandic glossolalia and then invited fans to write their own interpretations of the lyrics on a blank section of the liner notes. Then consider that they released an album called Rimur where they paired up with an local fisherman to sing traditional mariner poems. They include elaborate puns in the titles of songs and albums. They play a bowed guitar with chromosome warping levels of reverb. Their songs sound like the keening of unhappy glaciers.

And yet.

I was wrong to deny the awful truth. Sigur Ros is a fantastic band and I feel better having said it.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Feelings RE: Zombies

The new trailer to World War Z just came out. Have you seen it? Are you planning on watching the movie? Did you read the book?

 I have a complicated push/pull feeling about zombie horror. Zombies have a lot of potential as monsters or a focus of dread. Unlike the other archetypes: vampires, werewolves, aliens, and eldritch elder gods, zombies are unromantic, almost impossible to romanticize. Zombies are shambling (or galloping, depending on your taste) dead people. They don't seduce. They don't have an agenda. They don't have a complicated life-cycle. They form zombie hordes and eat people. You can try a few variants on this basic concept but it's basically always the same.

That's both a blessing and a curse.

As a positive, because zombies are essentially people, or at least once were people, they have a connection to past experiences. The clothing, the wounds of the zombie serve to supply some narrative about their lives before and the nature of their becoming. All of this is grist for a writer's mill. Plus zombies come with a full freight of metaphorical connections. You can approach zombies from the socio-political angle, like classic Romero did. Zombies as a stand-in for the forgotten underclass. You can use zombies to discuss a culture's relationship with death. Nothing focuses an audiences attention on questions of mortality quite like having the dead attack the living. Maybe because zombies don't get portrayed as sex-objects, they can serve as a template for all sorts of discussions about consumerism, power, and symbolic cannibalism.

Or maybe you just show zombies eating a lot of people.

I think the negative side of zombies, and here I'm referring to both literature and movies is that they tend to serve as a kind of short-hand for horror without fully becoming horrible. I understand the series has improved recently, but that was ultimately what drove me from AMC's Walking Dead. While I waited for the characters to become interesting, the show seemed considerably more interested in staging another attack of grey, anonymous zombies.

In short, I don't have a problem with zombies but I definitely think the market for mediocre zombies reached saturation.

Last night, I noticed in Reddit someone had posted the new trailer for the movie adaption of Max Brooks's zombie testimonial classic, World War Z. I almost didn't click on the link. That's how certain I was that the movie was destined for failure. The lead actor: Brad Pitt. The novel Studs Terkel inspired narrative: ditched. The possibility the whole project was in development hell: nearly total. Then I clicked the link.

I've already read some complaints that the trailer gives too much away of the plot or doesn't explain what is going on. There is the inevitable complaint about 'zoombies,' or the recent undead innovation depicted in the Dawn of the Dead remake and the 28...Later movies where the zombies abandon shuffling for full-on sprinting. I've always like the classicism of the zombie shamble but I have to say that the full spring at the opening of Dawn of the Dead did bring something new to the table. You can outrun the walking dead, you're probably not going to escape a creature capable of running but incapable of exhaustion. That's horror.

But I also saw something in the trailer that seems promising. The full realization of the zombie horde. I'm not fully impressed by the CGI runners in the trailer, there's something a little rubbery and fake about how the zombies tumble down stairs and over buses. However, if there was one aspect of the novel I really enjoyed it was the reference to zombie mega-hordes roaming across the Great American Plain. That aspect of the book left simple horror and became true speculative fiction. The basic what-if question: what if zombies really did occupy a major continent? What would happen on a landmass filled with ambulatory corpses and how would you ever remove them? Part of the enjoyment of the novel was the matter-of-fact way the survivors set about winning World War Z.

The trailer suggests a similar realist approach to zombies. A movie that married genuine cinematic spectacle with the novel's earnest speculations could be very good.

Then again, it could just be zombies eating a lot of people.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What color optimism?

We won. By we I mean the country of course. Having an election that produces a definitive, relatively uncontroversial result is always to be preferred over a 2000 or a, dare-I-say-it, an 1860. Obama sewed up the electoral vote with surprising speed and eventually prevailed in the popular vote. The Senate went back to Democratic control and some really despicable theocrats (Akin, Mourdock, Walsh) got the swift ticket to obscurity they so richly deserve. The House is still in Republican hands but that wasn't much of a surprise.

I found two things particularly heartening after this election. One, the trends are in favor of progressivism. More of the Obama electorate was young, single female, hispanic and/or African American than 2008. Not only was Obama able to resurrect his winning coalition he was able to expand it. That can only be a good thing. Despite Bill O'Reilly's paranoid rant last night, America doesn't suffer when more people get involved, it suffers when no one is involved. When people don't feel the system offers them anything, they find others means of redress.

The second thing is last night represents a victory for objective reality. Numbers matter. One particularly telling moment occurred on FOX after the decision table had called Ohio and the election for Obama. Karl Rove, paid by the network for his opinions on matters political, began to second guess the call. In a moment of truly thrilling television, the on-hair host went over to the decision table and had them explain to Rove how to count. This for me was the "ding dong the witch is dead" moment I've been waiting for. The same fuzzy math, "greeted as liberators," "just a few dead-enders" relationship Rove and the Bush II administration always had with the truth was shown for what it is: a tissue of delusion. Rove will have the next four years to explain to the plutocrats of this country what exactly they bought with their $130 million; I got my answer.

So is all roses? No. I try my best to avoid Dr. Pangloss' error. We do not live in the most perfect of all worlds. We've avoided dark beards, but I think there's a lot to be worried about. Boehner just made some positive noises about compromise and the obvious need for additional revenue but he is the Speaker for a lot of very scary people. What is the point of having an election if the other side refuses to admit they lost? I hope Obama doesn't have to wade through his next term acting like it's Nov. 5th every day.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Castles in the Sky: Cloud Atlas


From Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail:



King of Swamp Castle: When I first came here, this was all swamp. Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up. And that's what you're going to get, Lad, the strongest castle in all of England.

Cloud Atlas has earned, I believe, a fairly unshakable reputation as a great piece of literature. In common with all great works of art it is heartfelt, complicated, courageous, and a lot of fun. The book came out in 2004, can more be said? One aspect that especially interests me, a day or so after having finished it, is its ability for whipping up truly impressive structures of vapor. This book artfully and consistently drives the home the artificiality of its narratives while simultaneously cannibalizing each fiction to sustain the next interrupting story. It's a little bit like prefacing a joke with the disclaimer, "This never happened but it's really funny." Writing is the act of creating an entire world and suspending it upon the most slender of supports, the willingness of a reader to accept your malarkey. We build castles in the air.





First a quick primer on Cloud Atlas if you've not had the pleasure of reading it or watching the movie which does a earnest job translating the themes of the story into a movie. "The Pacific Diaries Of Adam Ewing" opens the novel, the account of an American notary send to a distant Pacific Island to resolve a business deal. His journal describes his small act of kindness in rescuing a Moriori slave from certain death and his own deteriorating health despite the ministrations of his friend Dr. Goose. This account ends in mid-sentence and the story shifts to a young composer Robert Frobisher attempting to become the aneumis of another, more celebrated composer. This tale is itself interrupted. The novel is ultimately composed of six novellas written in a variety of genres and time periods, all arranged so that just as a story hits its stride and begins to ratchet up the tension it's interrupted by the next story in order. Only the last story in the series -- "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After:" an oral reminiscence of a man describing his escape from a post-apocalyptic Hawai'i -- is told without interruption. Once past that story, the conclusion of each of the preceding tales appears, each one the turning of a page until we are once more back with Adam Ewing. The themes of one story are elaborated in the others, the protagonists of each story often share a birth mark or tattoo described as a comet. 


All of this is deftly handled by Mitchell and each story registers clearly, forcefully (something I thought the movie didn't quite achieve) and very much in its own world. The cyber-punk Manifesto of the "Orison of Sonmi 451" is just as sincere and fully imagined as the post-modern satire of "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish." While the voice of each novella is clearly Mitchell's he does an effective make-up job for each novella. But this gets to my central question. How does he do it? How does Mitchell pull off the prestidigitation of presenting six patently false tales in such a way that each becomes greater in the reflection of its companions?


Cannibalism is a prominent theme of the novel as a whole. Adam Ewing meets Dr. Goose on a beach where he is digging up teeth, spit like "cherry pits" from the bodies consumed by the 'natives' of the island. Dr. Goose is anything but a reputable source on this but he does provide a nifty epigraph for the central concern of the book: "the weak are meat the strong do eat." The dying composer Vyvyan Ayrs attempt to borrow and assimilate the creations of Robert Frobisher's pen. Sonmi 451 discovers to her horror that fabricants, artificial humans such as herself, are never freed but are instead slaughtered and fed to the next generation of fabricants. Power, in Cloud Atlas' many universes, is something sustained on the labor, flesh, and lives of its subjugates. But that theme also provides a clue to the structural games Mitchell is playing with the novel as a whole. The past is prey to the future in each the novellas. Ewing's diary is ripped in two, one half used to prop up an unstable bed. Frobisher's letters are scattered and incomplete, his work obscure and forgotten. The thriller narrative "Half-Lives: the First Luisa Rey Mystery" is disparaged as slush pile material by the next narratives caustic publisher Timothy Cavendish. Sonmi 451's abolitionist manifesto becomes a religion for Zachry's people, a religion shown as mistaken by a technologically advanced visitor. Rather than undermining the story as whole, the attack on each previous narrative becomes a way to support the present story, much like Vyvyan Ayrs' bed is supported by Ewing's diary. By the time we are cast into the distant future after the "Fall" of technology we aren't asking whether or not the story is plausible, because the support of each story propels us into the imagined future with the same inescapable force it used to pull us from the past.


It reminds me a little bit of the legendary Indian Fakir trick where a boy climbs a rope into thin air and then disappears. According to the published accounts of the trick, the Fakir then climbs after the boy, stabs the thin air and produces a pile of bloody limbs. The Fakir drops those limbs into a basket, shuts the lid and then opens it again to produce an unharmed boy. There is an element of a disappearing act in each of the stories: people are constantly narrowing escaping, whether by smashing out of a submerged car, sneaking out beneath the noses of an totalitarian security service or hiding beneath a bridge as militaristic slavers ride past. As objective observers we know that what we are seeing can't possibly be true but we're taken in by the audacity of the trick. We are the missing support in the trick. The readers are the thread that holds each of the improbable stories together.


Greg Egan's excellent novel Distress provides a different perspective on the same trick. Without going too much into the plot, at one point, the narrator discovers what is holding up a city built on an artificial island deep in the middle of the Pacific. He had previously assumed the artificial coral was somehow cantilevered over the remains of an extinct submerged volcano but is shown how nano-engineered bacteria are producing buoyant gases as they grow beneath the city. If the city is resting on anything, it is actively floating on a cushion of life. The image was of central importance to the story as a whole, the idea that the connections of society, the glue of personal trust and legitimacy sustain its existence even when the more obvious supports, such as law and government wither away. An optimistic vision but one I think one Mitchell elaborates upon masterfully in Cloud Atlas.

Friday, November 2, 2012

American Horror Story, Season Two, Episode Three: Nor'Easter

I'll give this to Brad Falchuk -- he has a keen sense of timing. The absorbing third episode of the American Horror Story, "Nor'Easter" is all the more effective owing to coming right on the heels of Sandy. Nature's fury seizes my imagination more tightly when the debris from an actual Superstorm still clutter my street.

I could have used for even more of the storm actually. The radio mentions it, and the central conceit of the story, that Sister Jude (the operatic Jessica Lange) wants to calm the patients at the Briarcliff Mental Institution, depends upon it. But when it actually arrived, the sound studio torrents reminded me more of the final scene of Shawshank Redemption than some actual apocalyptic storm. American Horror Story doesn't seem to be shy about 'more is better,' elsewhere. The first episode introduced the asylum, it's inmates, a creepy sadistic Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell), a nymphomaniac (Chloe Svegniy), a wife-killing psychopath (Kit Walker, played by Evan Peters) who insists he was abducted by aliens (played by unwholesome grey prosthesis), an undead serial killer, and a crusading journalist wrongly detained. Since the first episode, Satan has made his appearance, zombies have appeared and Dr. Arden has gone off the deep-end.

 Strangely, I still think this works. Partly this has to do with fine acting from the ensemble and partly this has to do with tone. I have no idea what American Horror Story is playing at but it seems to be having a lot of malicious fun getting to its point.

 I wouldn't say American Horror Story is scary precisely, but it does provide a lot of ghoulish television fun in one hour. I'm not sure. If the plot wasn't so tightly entwined I'd almost be tempted to say American Horror Story tells anthologies of stories, like Creep Show. But I don't think that's what they are trying. The monsters of one character keep intruding on other characters' stories: Kit Walker's aliens make an appearance (and possibly abduct?) during Sister Jude's boozy fall from grace. The zombies that Sister Mary tends for Dr. Arden thwart Kit, Shelly, Lana and Grace's escape attempt. Everything is connected at the same time everything's falling apart.

It's almost as if the show itself was insane and the 'stories' are the various delusions bubbling to the surface during therapy. Alternately, maybe only one of the monsters is real and the others are masks it wears. I just can't believe the show actually wants us to believe that this one asylum is beset by an entire menagerie of evil. That wouldn't be a story, that would be a scare house.

 By bet is on the aliens.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Not the Darkest Time Stream

Nate Silver at the NY Times thinks the chances are three out of four that Obama wins the election. Karl Rove thinks Romney should already be moving in to the Oval Office. Somewhere in between those predictions lies my view of the truth: a close race tilting Obama's way. Romney can't win without Ohio and the polls don't look good for him there. Math doesn't favor Mitt -- that makes me cautiously optimistic.

However, let's for a moment realize that even with Silver's predictions there is a significant statistical chance that in some universe Romney will be the next president of the United States. In the infinite sea of the multiverse, assuming like Community, that such a thing exists, a large portion of future time streams will feature a Romney administration.

Would those be the Darkest Timelines?

The optimist in me says probably not. Romney is an American politician who has swum his way upwards in the mainstream of Republican politics. I think that is one of his biggest advantages and his biggest flaws. He is the face of the corporatist, opportunistic strain of modern politics. I think the man has no soul but I don't think he is utterly evil.

I say that to explain why I'm going to vote for Obama.

I am, even at this late date, for Obama. I believe in what he is trying to do: incremental positive change to the American system. I have never believed that a radical making radical changes would solve our problems. Revolutions are messy, civil wars are man-made disasters and the imposition of change on people not ready to embrace it rarely works. What works is solving specific problems and moving onto other problems.

I do not, in other words, blame Obama for the hyper-partisanship of the past four years. I think he is the best hope of overcoming it. What Romney wants to do in his four years is quite clear, a third term of George W. Bush. His five point plan is identical to Bush and McCain for that matter. All that promises is another four to eight years of the same fights this country fought last decade and the decade before that. Obama has already changed the conversation. He has brought health care to millions, long-delayed reform to Wall Street and justice to Osama Bin Laden. Obama has brought change.

Let's give him another four years if for no other reason that at the end of his administration will have two or three or four fewer ancient problems to deal with.

That's the time stream I want to live in.